Friday, December 12, 2014

Torture Is Not about Our Enemies; It's about Us


“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Matthew 5:38-39,43-44

Now that I am reasonably certain I will not grow up to play third base for the Boston Red Sox, I have a new life dream. I want to be a writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

And in my imagination I can see the opening for a show this week. Stewart sits at his desk, welcomes viewers, and tells them, “We’ve got a great show for you tonight . . .”

Then he introduces a segment on the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA interrogation methods. “The report,” he says, “has encountered fierce opposition from those who insist that in the wake of 9/11 the use of torture was essential to protecting our national interests, but at least one group has spoken out in strong support of the report. Christian conservatives, who have been adamant in their belief that the literal interpretation of a few Bible verses makes it impossible for them to support the rights of gay people, have rushed to support the committee’s opposition to torture. Citing Jesus’ commitment to non-violence . . .”

Stewart pauses and puts his finger to his ear so that he can hear something in his earphone. He looks confused. “No?” he says. “They’re not saying that?” He pauses. “Not one of them . . .”

In fairness, I’m sure there are some Christians, evangelicals and Roman Catholics, who oppose both gay marriage and torture. My imaginary segment wouldn’t really be fair to them. But there are many who are literalists when it comes to a few verses that allegedly speak about homosexuality, and yet seem to have no problem dismissing fundamental aspects of Jesus’ ethical vision as if he didn’t really mean it.

Senator John McCain has made it consistently clear that he is not a biblical literalist. And he is generally hawkish on military issues, but he is adamantly opposed to torture.

McCain carries in his body the permanent injuries inflicted by his torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese. He walks with a limp. He cannot raise his arms high enough to comb his hair. In a recent speech on the floor of the Senate, he spoke in favor of the conclusions reached in the Intelligence Committee report:

“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence,” he said. “I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering. Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.”

He went on to argue that in addition to being morally wrong, torture was also ineffective.

“What might come as a surprise, not just to our enemies, but to many Americans,” he declared, “is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow. That could be a real surprise, since it contradicts the many assurances provided by intelligence officials on the record and in private that enhanced interrogation techniques were indispensable in the war against terrorism. And I suspect the objection of those same officials to the release of this report is really focused on that disclosure – torture’s ineffectiveness – because we gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer. Too much.”

It would not be surprising if a person who had suffered as much as John McCain has would easily embrace the morality of “an eye for an eye.” and that he would argue, as others have, that the committee report takes a naïve view of our enemies; that it is not realistic to think that we can uphold the United Nations Convention Against Torture (signed by President Reagan), when our enemies clearly do not. But McCain maintains that “this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us."

This is the conclusion of his speech:

“. . . in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.

“We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily.

“Our enemies act without conscience. We must not. This executive summary of the Committee’s report makes clear that acting without conscience isn’t necessary, it isn’t even helpful, in winning this strange and long war we’re fighting. We should be grateful to have that truth affirmed.

“Now, let us reassert the contrary proposition: that is it essential to our success in this war that we ask those who fight it for us to remember at all times that they are defending a sacred ideal of how nations should be governed and conduct their relations with others – even our enemies.

“Those of us who give them this duty are obliged by history, by our nation’s highest ideals and the many terrible sacrifices made to protect them, by our respect for human dignity to make clear we need not risk our national honor to prevail in this or any war. We need only remember in the worst of times, through the chaos and terror of war, when facing cruelty, suffering and loss, that we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Do Not Be Afraid


In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among all people!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

Luke 2:5-15

Do not be afraid. Or in the King James translation, “Fear not.”

That is a good summary of the biblical message.

In Matthew’s Gospel those words are spoken by an angel in a dream as Joseph contemplates the coming birth, and at the end of the story the same words are spoken by an angel to the women at the empty tomb, and then finally by the risen Christ.

Luke’s birth narrative repeats that phrase over and over to Zechariah, to Mary, and to the shepherds.

It is hard to be faithful when we are afraid.

There is so much that is wrong with American politics that it is hard to find anything that we might understand to be a root cause. But fear is one of the leading candidates.

Fear is not new. The biblical record makes that clear. But it has grasped us in new ways since the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. A new Freedom Tower has been built on the site of the original twin towers, a symbolic declaration of national resilience and pride, but the fear has changed us.

The tanks that rolled out onto the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in response to the protests after the killing of Michael Brown were available to the Ferguson police department as part of a Homeland Security program in response to the 9/11 attacks. Ironically, we responded to the terrorism of 9/11 by terrorizing our own people.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman talks about a new book by David Rothkopf, the editor of Foreign Policy journal called, “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear.” In an email, he asked Rothkopf how long this fear will continue to haunt us, “Will it ever go away or will bin Laden be forever that gift that keeps on giving?”

“The post-9/11 era will not be seen as a golden age in U.S. foreign policy,” Rothkopf responded. “Largely, this is because 9/11 was such an emotional blow to the U.S. that it, in an instant, changed our worldview, creating a heightened sense of vulnerability.” Friedman reports that he went on to say, “not only did we overstate the threat, we reordered our thinking to make it the central organizing principle in shaping our foreign policy.”

We spend vast sums of emotional, political, and financial capital preventing events which could theoretically be devastating, but in reality are highly unlikely. As comedian John Oliver observed, after one failed attempt by the “shoe bomber” everyone has to take off their shoes to get by airport security. We invest heavily in preventing another terrorist attack, and neglect the strength we could build by investing in infrastructure or education or medical research or climate change.

In real and measureable ways, our fear has made us less secure. And consequently we are more fearful.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Violence in Ferguson


Why then has this people turned away
in perpetual backsliding?
They have held fast to deceit,
they have refused to return.
I have given heed and listened,
but they do not speak honestly;
no one repents of wickedness,
saying, “What have I done!”
All of them turn to their own course,
like a horse plunging headlong into battle.
How can you say, “We are wise,
and the law of the Lord is with us,”
when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie?
The wise shall be put to shame,
they shall be dismayed and taken;
since they have rejected the word of the Lord,
what wisdom is in them?
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

Jeremiah 8:5-6, 8-9, 11

Before the grand jury verdict was announced, and in his speech after the announcement, President Obama called for calm and said that there was “no excuse for violence.”

It is an ironic statement. When he said it, he meant it to apply to those protesting the death of Michael Brown. The protesters, on the other hand, were protesting precisely because they believed that there was no excuse for the deadly violence done to him.

How we see violence is determined in large part by our point of view. Whites see it differently from people of color. The powerful see it differently than the powerless.

The images of the violence in Ferguson are deeply troubling.

I chose the picture above because I hoped it would illustrate how differently we look at things. That picture is not from Ferguson; it’s from the pumpkin festival riots in Keene, New Hampshire last month. For videos of the Keene riots, click here. For images of other riots by largely white groups, you can look at Jon Stewart’s report on the riots at UCONN after the men’s basketball team won the NCAA championship in 2004. For the record, they won again last year, but had a smaller riot. And also, for the record, they don’t have riots when the women win.

For more serious reflection on violence and protest, it’s useful to look back to the Civil Rights movement and the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By the mid 1960’s, the disciplined non-violence of the Civil Rights movement broke under the weight of the violence and death they had absorbed and a new generation of leaders in the black community increasingly called for the use of force to achieve freedom and equality “by any means necessary.” In a television interview, Mike Wallace asked Dr. King if he was still committed to non-violence.

He played a tape of Dr. King speaking in those deep resonant cadences so familiar to his preaching style, “Now what I'm saying is this: I would like for all of us to believe in non-violence, but I'm here to say tonight that if every Negro in the United States turns against non-violence, I'm going to stand up as a lone voice and say, ‘This is the wrong way!’”

King’s radical critics would say (and frequently did say) that he had mis-stated the issue. The problem was not that “Negroes” had turned against non-violence, but that the white power structure had never embraced non-violence in the first place. But Dr. King understood that, and while affirming his continuing commitment to non-violence, he went on to say:

I contend that the cry of "black power" is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.

A riot is the language of the unheard.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reinhold Niebuhr and the Irony of the Jonathan Gruber Story


The children of this world are wiser in this generation than the children of light.

Luke 16:8

Once upon a time everyone who was serious about politics was reading Reinhold Niebuhr. Today it is hard to find anyone who knows who he is. That is too bad, because his insights are at least as relevant now as they were when he was alive and at the height of his popularity in the early 1960’s.

Niebuhr was one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, but his greatest contributions were in the area of political philosophy. He took the deepest insights of Christian theology and applied them to the practice of politics.

The people who worry about “mixing religion and politics” need to go read Niebuhr. And the people who want to impose their own (highly selective) literal reading of the Bible also need to go read Niebuhr.

Niebuhr’s best book on politics, “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness” ought to be required reading for anyone who aspires to public service. The book is inspired by that verse from Luke's Gospel. His basic insight was simple and undeniably true: the “children of light” do more harm through their naïve ineptitude than the “children of darkness” do on purpose.

“It must be understood,” Niebuhr wrote, “that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves.” The children of light have a naïve understanding of the world around them and are unrealistic in their assessment of the human capacity for evil. But they are also naïve about their own mixed motives.

The strange case of MIT economist Jonathan Gruber is just the latest evidence of the truth of Niebuhr’s insights. He was so taken with his own cleverness, and had such a great need to talk about that cleverness with other clever people that he had no sense of the harm he might do.

When he was first confronted with a video of himself talking about “the stupidity of the American people” and how that figured into the marketing of the Affordable Care Act, he said that it was just an “off the cuff” remark at an informal conference. But it turns out there are many video recordings of him making approximately the same statements at many conferences over several years.

The irony, to use one of Niebuhr’s favorite concepts, is astonishing. How is it possible for anyone, let alone an economist at MIT, to be that stupid?

In this instance there is plenty of irony to go around.

Bill O’Reilly spoke piously about Gruber insulting the American people, but his program has a regular segment in which a young staffer is sent out to cities and college campuses to ask people questions they can’t answer and then make fun of their stupidity. And after the last presidential election there were many references to the stupidity of the American voters who did not understand the issues.

Seriously, the stupidity of the American people is one of the few things on which commentators from both ends of the political spectrum seem to agree. Of course one side thought the 2012 voters were stupid, while the other side thought the 2014 voters were the stupid ones.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The World Is Broken, But It Will Be Healed in the End


No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

John 15:13

While waiting for my bagel at Panera I was absentmindedly checking my email when I came across this note from my friend and colleague Bill Flug:

I watched the Kassigs yesterday offer their statement about their son's death and said to myself, "They're Methodists." I was right, as you may know by now. Epworth UMC Indianapolis.

Bill concluded by saying that it made him proud to be a Methodist.

Later, in my office, I watched a CNN recording of their statement, which the reporter characterized as coming “from a church in Indianapolis.”

Peter’s dad, Ed Kassig began by quoting that verse from John’s Gospel. Peter Kassig gave his life in service of the people Syria, bringing humanitarian aid to the victims of the civil war there. He was captured in 2013 while delivering relief supplies.

His mother, Paula, began with a simple affirmation of their faith, "Our hearts are battered,” she said, “but they will mend. The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end. And good will prevail as the one God of many names will prevail.”

The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end.

It is not hard to see that the world is broken. The evidence is all around us. It is harder to believe that it will be healed in the end. But that is our faith and our vision. That hope was born with Israel’s vision in the Exile, and it endures today.

In a letter to his parents from captivity, he wrote, “I hope that this all has a happy ending but it may very well be coming down to the wire here, and if in fact that is the case then I figured it was time to say a few things that need saying before I have to go.” There was no happy ending, but hope endures.

Peter Kassig converted to Islam while in captivity and took the name Abdul-Rahman Kassig. “In terms of my faith,” he wrote, “I pray everyday and I am not angry about my situation in that sense. I am in a dogmatically complicated situation here, but I am at peace with my belief.”

“I am obviously pretty scared to die,” he wrote, “but the hardest part is not knowing, wondering, hoping, and wondering if I should even hope at all. I am very sad that all this has happened and for what all of you back home are going through. If I do die, I figure that at least you and I can seek refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.”

“Good will prevail,” said Paula Kassig, “as the One God of many names will prevail.” It is hard to know what to make of Peter Kassig’s conversion to Islam. His reference to a “dogmatically complicated situation” is open to multiple interpretations. He could have “converted” in hopes of finding favor with his captors, and he could have entered into a profound shift in world view. But it is also possible that he saw faith, as many Methodists do, as a seamless garment. Or maybe a patchwork quilt. The differences are real, but we are still all connected.

Ed Kassig concluded their statement with a call to prayer. "Please pray for Abdul-Rahman, or Pete if that's how you know him, at sunset this evening," He said. "Pray also for all people in Syria, in Iraq, and around the world that are held against their will. And lastly, please allow our small family the time and privacy to mourn, cry -- and yes, forgive -- and begin to heal,"

Monday, November 10, 2014

Pope Francis and Evolution


The heavens are telling the glory of God; 
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

In an editorial today, The Providence Journal notes that “Pope Francis, unlike many of his predecessors, is more than willing to share his personal opinions on a wide variety of controversial issues.” According to the Journal, the most recent example of his willingness to speak out on controversial issues came at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Vatican City, where he spoke out a few days ago on “the evolution-versus-creation debate.”

Essentially, what he said was that there was no inherent conflict between evolution and Christian faith.

One assumes this must have come as a great relief to the biology professors teaching evolution at Catholic Universities around the world, as well as to the thousands of teachers in Catholic high schools.

This is not news.

To be fair, the editorial acknowledges that Pope Francis is not the first pope to positively about evolution. The Journal quotes Josephine McKenna of Religion News Service as observing that “In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed there was no opposition between evolution and Catholic doctrine. [And] In 1996, St. John Paul II endorsed Pius’ statement.”

According to the Journal, “it was the direct and remarkably straightforward manner of the pope’s response that caught more than a few observers off guard. He strongly defended the long-held position of the Roman Catholic Church and, most importantly, established a modern link between evolution and creation.”

The only reason anyone could have been caught off guard is because over the last several decades the news media have focused on the most anti-scientific members of the Christian community and made it seem like they spoke for everyone. Over the last five hundred years, faith and science have had few quarrels until these last few decades. And even now, the conflict does not exist for mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics. And it does not exist for many evangelicals.

I appreciate the willingness of Pope Francis to say things that need to be said. “When we read about Creation in Genesis,” he said, “we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so. He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”

True enough. The book of Genesis is not a scientific treatise. And it is not a history book. It is symbolic language. It is about meaning and relationships. It is about who we are and whose we are.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Life Lost and the Problem of Heteronormativity


“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 7:12

Julie Wood, a United Methodist from North Carolina made a touching video about her son Ben, who grew up in the United Methodist Church and was active in his youth group until he told the group that he was gay. Not long after that, the youth pastor told him that he would go to hell and yelled at Julie and her husband for raising him. The youth pastor encouraged members of the group to stay away from him. Ben never went back to church after that, and he committed suicide in 2013.

When I was ordained a Deacon in 1973 the major issue at our Annual Conference centered on the charges brought against a clergy colleague for marrying two gay men who were students at Harvard Divinity School.

We have been debating the place (or lack of place) of LGBTQ persons for a long time. We have been discussing and debating since before anyone used the terms LGBTQ or LGBT or even gay.

Back then, “they” were “homosexuals,” and “we” were . . . normal. And we did not realize how much pain we inflicted simply by casting the debate in that context. I did not realize the harm done even by those of us on the “right” side of that issue.

This fall, in the course of a panel discussion on diversity, there was a controversy at Duke Divinity School when a student asked a question about how the school was combating the problem of heteronormativity. The dean of the school responded (accounts vary about the exact sequence of events) by reading a passage from the United Methodist Discipline which asserts that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

We will pause for a moment to consider the irony of the dean’s response.

In the debate following that incident, one of the recurring themes was that those supporting a “traditional” view and upholding the Discipline were being bullied by those who categorized such views as hateful and bigoted. The traditionalists lamented the fact that the discussion could not be more respectful and civilized. The problem, of course, is that what the traditionalists call respectful and civilized actually inflicts great pain on LGBTQ persons.

The video made by Julie Wood is a painful reminder of what real bullying looks like, and of the harm it inflicts.