Both Iran and its Hamas proxy in Gaza have been busy this Christmas week showing Christendom just what they think of it. But no one seems to have noticed.Hamas specified crucifixion for "enemies of islam," which can mean anyone Hamas wants it to mean.
On Tuesday, Hamas legislators marked the Christmas season by passing a Shari'a criminal code for the Palestinian Authority. Among other things, it legalizes crucifixion.
Hamas's endorsement of nailing enemies of Islam to crosses came at the same time it renewed its jihad. Here, too, Hamas wanted to make sure that Christians didn't feel neglected as its fighters launched missiles at Jewish day care centers and schools. So on Wednesday, Hamas lobbed a mortar shell at the Erez crossing point into Israel just as a group of Gazan Christians were standing on line waiting to travel to Bethlehem for Christmas.
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
This movie is surprisingly good with a more powerful impact than I expected, even though I was already familiar with most of the history of the unsuccessful coup.
Normally at this point in a blog review, I would alert you about spoilers to follow, but that would be a bit like warning you that RMS Titanic would sink at the end of James Cameron's movie about it. The historical facts of the July 20 plot are well known: a group of German army officers, some of general-officer rank and some retired, plus some civilians, plotted to assassinate Hitler in the summer of 1944. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg was the hub man, with direct access to Hitler. On July 20, Claus attended a conference at Hitler's forward headquarters in Poland, called the Wolf's Lair. Claus carried into the conference room a briefcase with a powerful bomb inside with its time fuze already functioning. Then another conspirator called Claus on the phone, enabling him to leave the building without raising suspicion.
Shortly afterward, the bomb exploded, killing three officers and wounding many more. Hitler, though, happened to be shielded from the bulk of the blast by the heavy, oaken conference table and escaped with only light injuries.
Not knowing that Hitler had survived, the plotters set in motion their plan to seize control of the government in Berlin. Using an existing plan called "Valkyrie" (Walküre), they succeeded only briefly. As word spread that Hitler was alive and still in command, the plot fell apart. That night, von Stauffenberg and some other key plotters were executed.
It is a particular challenge to make a movie of real history and present it both accurately and suspensefully. James Cameron didn't even try in Titanic, preferring to tell a wholly fictional love story aboard the doomed vessel while sticking to facts (or best conjecture) in representing the ship itself and its sinking. Ron Howard's Apollo 13 met the challenge extremely well, varying little from the actual history yet telling the story with suspense that was sometimes gripping.
Director Bryan Singer succeeds in Valkyrie. He's helped along by an excellent screenplay and an outstanding cast, especially (Wunder von Wundern!) Tom Cruise. Filming in Berlin helped a lot too, in fact, the firing-squad execution of von Stauffenberg and three other plotters was filmed at the actual site they died, Berlin's Bendler Block, where stands the only memorial in Berlin to any German military members of the war.
Cruise plays von Stauffenberg with (for him) severe understatement. It was refreshing to see Cruise in a movie where he was not "Tom Cruise playing Tom Cruise." The role is unlike any role I recall him playing. The film opens in North Africa, where von Stauffenberg was badly shot up by Allied P-40 Warhawks (which are excellently CGI rendered). Losing an eye, the whole of one hand and two fingers from the other leaves von Stauffenberg permanently handicapped. This is the only combat scene of the movie, which, as Cruise said on the publicity circuit, is not really a war movie at all, but an espionage-suspense thriller set in wartime Germany. Unlike Cruise's past films, where his characters usually shook off gunshot wounds and club beatings within minutes, von Stauffenberg's disabilities really do matter and affect why the bomb plot didn't kill Hitler (won't spoil that one any further).
My only complaint about Cruise as von Stauffenberg is that Cruise's past roles - most being action-hero, physical roles - are almost too much baggage for him to break free in Valkyrie, wherein Cruise's character perforce must stay firmly within what is actually, humanly possible. But it works.
What I liked --
The actors didn't use phony German accents. Cruise talked like, well, Cruise. None of this, "Vee must neffer be caught. Iss ze bomb shtrong enuff?" stuff. It may be that Cruise can't do accents, so director Singer skipped doing them. Still, it works overall. OTOH, the cast is international, so Englishman Tim Wilkinson, playing General Friedrich Fromm, sounds like Lord Cornwallis, whom he played in Mel Gibson's The Patriot. And German actor Thomas Kretschmann, playing Major Otto Ernst Remer, speaks English perfectly well, but he does have, well, a German accent.
The musical score lets you know from the beginning that the movie is about heroic men and women whose will not prevail. This is not a triumphalist movie and the music reflects that. It is low key, mostly strings and thankfully bereft of the martial drumrolls that seem always to accompany movie characters in Nazi uniforms.
The supporting cast is excellent. Terence Stamp is utterly believable as retired General Ludwig Beck. David Bamber plays Adolf Hitler with physical precision, though the part is not as large as one might think for a movie about a plot to kill him. Bill Nighy as General Friedrich Olbrich portrays a weak reed of a soul who clutches at a key moment. Wilkinson's portrayal of Fromm captures perfectly that reprehensible soul who mugwumped his way through the plot, then summarily ordered the execution of the von Stauffenberg and some others to cover his own tracks.
The accuracy of the time is well done, from uniforms to aircraft to sidearms.
Overall, I give Valkyrie eight of of 10 stars.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
What is Hamas?
Hamas is an Islamist faction that was founded in Gaza about 20 years ago. It is violently anti-Israel. Hamas is a direct outgrowth of the original Islamist group of the Middle East, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded in the early 1920s to counter Western influences in Egypt and, later, elsewhere in Arab lands.
Hamas was elected to office in Gaza by Gazans in 2006, mainly because of the corruption and inefficiency of the then-ruling Palestinian Authority (PA) under Mahmud Abbas. After its election, Hamas set about murdering PA officials and members of Fatah, the PA's armed political wing. By mid-2007, the PA had been driven out of Gaza except for a few liaison offices. Today, the PA governs only the West Bank, between Jordan and Israel.
Hamas has always openly proclaimed that its purpose is the destruction of Israel as a political entity and the ejection of all Jews from the land of Israel. Hamas' charter states bluntly, "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad," as well as calling for an end to the state of Israel.
Wikipedia has a reasonably balanced and complete history of Hamas, including this insight:
According to Steven Erlanger of the New York Times, Hamas excludes the possibility of long term reconciliation with Israel. "Since the Prophet Muhammad made a temporary hudna, or truce, with the Jews about 1,400 years ago, Hamas allows the idea. But no one in Hamas says he would make a peace treaty with Israel or permanently give up any part of Palestine." Mkhaimer Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University explains that “They (Hamas) talk of hudna, not of peace or reconciliation with Israel."Hudna is an Arab word with a uniquely Muslim context meaning temporary truce in order to gain strength or advantage enough to resume open warfare. Another history of Hamas can be read on MidEastWeb.org. Hamas is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, the European Union and other countries and is banned by Jordan.
What does "Islamist" mean?
The religion founded by Muhammad is Islam; its adherents are Muslims. Their beliefs and way of life are called Islamic. "Islamist" is not a Muslim term. It was coined by French scholar Gilles Kepel, head of the post-graduate program on the Arab and Muslim worlds at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, to describe a particular strain of politically active Islam that promotes a strict, unyielding view of Islam. Islamism was originally oriented toward changing Arab countries to practice in government and social life that strict view. (See his article, “The Trail of Political Islam,” http://www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article-5-57-421.jsp.)
The best-known Islamist today is al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. In many interviews and written documents he has promulgated since the early 1990s, bin Laden has stated his objectives plainly:
- The ejection of, first, Americans and second, all other non-Muslims from the whole of Saudi Arabia, which bin Laden refers to as the "Land of the Two Holy Places" (Mecca and Medina, the latter being Muhammed's birthplace).
- The institution of strict sharia, or Islamic, law in Saudi Arabia, followed by the same in all the other countries bordering the Persian Gulf.
- The reclaiming for Islam all the historic lands of the ancient Islamic caliphate at their widest extent. For example, bin Laden refers to Spain not as Spain, or even its older name of Andalusia, but as al-Andalus, the Arabic name given to those parts of the Iberian Peninsula governed by Muslims at various times in the period between 711 and 1492.
- The expansion of Islam across the entire globe.
These are ambitious objectives, as you can see.
Muslim law Professor Khaled Abou El Fad explains Islamism as "supremacist puritanism" in his article. "Islam and the Theology of Power."
What is the source of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?
There is no casual answer to this question. For the long answer, I recommend Sister Ruth Lautt's comprehensive article, The Church’s Witness on Issues in the Arab/Israeli Conflict. Here is a shorter answer.
"Palestine" was never an independent nation since before the time of Christ, having since then been ruled by the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines and Arabians, briefly by Europeans during the Crusades (and not all of Palestine then). Until the establishment of modern Israel in 1948, the people living in historic Palestine had never been self governing since the land belonged to ancient Israel/Judah.
In late modern times, most of the Middle East was under the sway of the Ottoman Empire, headquartered in Turkey. The Ottomans made the unfortunate decision to ally with Germany during World War I. The end of the war meant the end of the Ottoman Empire, and Palestine came under control of the British as a prize of war. (British forces under George Allenby took Jerusalem in 1917.)
The land that became modern Israel was sparsely populated at that time. One-third of the people living there were Jews, more than had lived there since Roman times. The League of Nations, formed in 1919, passed resolutions directing the British to create a Jewish homeland. This directive became known as the British Mandate and ultimately came to include approximately the lands that became Israel in 1948, plus the Transjordan (known today as the West Bank) and Gaza.
In 1947, the United Nations resolved that the lands of the British Mandate, not including Jordan, be partitioned into two states, one Jewish, one Arab. The Jews accepted this resolution while the Arab nations violently opposed it. The result was the war for Israeli independence, beginning in May 1948 and culminating in a ceasefire in February 1949. During the war hundreds of thousands of people, both Jews and Arabs, were dispossessed of their homes and forced to leave or chose to leave because of the violence of war. Refugees were Arabs and Jews in approximately equal numbers. Sister Ruth summarizes,
The Arabs that stayed in what became the borders of Israel became Israeli citizens. The Arabs that fled or were forced out became refugees. For the most part they were never resettled and the United Nations maintained and continues to maintain them as refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and in what we now call the Palestinian territories under a special agency created only for Palestinian refugees -- United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA).Today, these refugees and their descendants live mainly in the West Bank and Gaza. Neighboring Arab countries have been very inhospitable in accepting them. For example, after the Gulf War of 1991, Kuwait expelled all Palestinians living and working in the country, about 200,000 overall.
Since 1948, the Arab nations have not accepted the legitimacy of Israel as a state and have rejected the concept of a "two-state solution," the basis of the original British Mandate that would have created both a Jewish nation and a Palestinian nation. The two-state solution still forms the basis of the West's attempts to mediate a peace. This is exactly the solution that Hamas rejects. Even Yasir Arafat, when proclaiming his acceptance of the state of Israel to the West, made it clear in his domestic statements that Israel could not continue as a Jewish state, but would have to become a majority-Muslim country.
Except Egypt, no Arab nation has formally signalled acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, although Jordan does so in practice if not in declaration. Most of the rest of the Arab countries deal with Jewish Israel as a fait accompli, though they look forward to the day when it will transition to Muslim majority.
This history is the root of the conflict between Hamas and Israel (and, for that matter, between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon).
Why is Israel bombing Hamas in Gaza?
Hamas has for years been carrying out terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. A large number of suicide bombers attacking Israelis in the last dozen years or so have come from Gaza, sponsored by Hamas or Fatah. Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel sealed the border with Gaza a few years ago and withdrew all forces from Gaza. Sharon also ordered the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza. However, peace did not break out once the last Israeli left Gaza. If anything, violence against Israel intensified.
For several years, Hamas has launched explosive rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. A number of Israelis, including women and children, have been killed. These rocket attacks are indiscriminate since Hamas long ago declared that any Israeli of any age, occupation or either sex is a legitimate target. In retaliation (and contrast), Israel has carried out carefully controlled, precision attacks against key Hamas figures, especially those commanding or conducting the rocket attacks. The Israeli attacks have almost without exception been conducted using precision-guided missiles fired from Israeli helicopters with few other Gazans killed or injured.
Earlier this year, Hamas agreed to a ceasefire with Israel. However, Hamas continued to launch rockets against Israel not long after agreeing to the ceasefire. They fired dozens of rockets per day, sometimes as many as 60, causing deaths and injuries among Israeli citizens. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis were compelled to hide in shelters for many hours per day. (Some of Hamas's rockets can range 40 kilometers, about 25 miles.) The economy and social life of southern Israel was pretty much shut down.
I spent some time in the frequently-targeted Israeli town of Sederot in October 2007. Six rockets hit near the town the day I was there, although not during the time I was there. I posted a photo-essay here.
These attacks were the proximate cause of Israel's bombing of Hamas' facilities this week. While working through backchannels to get Hamas to honor the ceasefire, Israel began planning this campaign perhaps as long as six months ago, according to the UK's Guardian newspaper, which continued,
[Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak said yesterday (Dec. 28) the timing of the operation was dictated by Israel's patience simply "having running out" in the face of renewed rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into Israel when the shaky six-month ceasefire expired 10 days ago. "Any other sovereign nation would do the same," is the official Israeli refrain. Amid the storm of international criticism of Israel's hugely disproportionate response, it is easy to overlook the domestic pressure faced by the Israeli government over its handling of "Hamastan".It is, of course, the Guardian that says israel's campaign is "disproportionate," an unsurprising charge for the paper to make since it has a long anti-Israel editorial history. (British newspapers are openly partisan and don't claim to be impartial in reporting.) See my own assessment here. Actually, rumors of action against Gaza have been flying for much longer than six months.
Homemade Qassam rockets and mortars rarely kill but they do terrify and have undermined Israel's deterrent power as well as keeping 250,000 residents of the south of the country in permanent danger.
Israel's attacks are intended to do four main things:
- Kill as many high-level Hamas figures as possible.
- Reduce the ranks of Hamas rank and file by causing casualties among them.
- Provide disincentives for Gazans' support of Hamas' control of their political future and hence,
- Delegitimize Hamas' authority.
As video from Gaza makes clear, Israel's attacks have been conducted with as great precision as possible. The vast majority of killed and injured have been unambiguously members of Hamas. Gazan civilians have suffered, yes, but there is no way to claim with integrity that the Israelis have failed to follow the Just War tenet of discrimination, just as it is undeniable that Hamas has deliberately attempted with success to kill Israeli civilians.
How will this all end?
Unfortunately, the question assumes that there will be an end. Hamas, funded by Saudi Arabia and equipped by Iran through Egypt, considers itself locked in a death match with Israel. Israel cannot permit hundreds of thousands of its people to live under constant threat of death by Hamas' rockets.
Israeli prime Minister Olmert has been on politically shaky ground for several months, accused of graft and corruption going back years. The end of his ministry looms. Even so, he has indicated that he will order a land invasion of Gaza if Hamas fails to follow the terms of the ceasefire it agreed to follow. Israeli tank units have already assembled near Gaza.
In my opinion, the war cannot end on terms favorable to Hamas because Hamas simply is too weak to enforce its will against Israel. Terrorism is all it can do, and while the destruction it has wreaked using terrorism has been great in the past, it can never be so great that Israel will submit.
Israel, on the other hand, has the military capability to crush utterly Hamas, but the cost in lives to both Israel and Gaza's civilians would be more than Israel is prepared to accept. An air campaign alone cannot compel Hamas to surrender its fight. Unless Israel is prepared to accept a long-term deployment of its armed forces inside Gaza, these strikes will bring only temporary respite from Hamas' attacks. However, Olmert proved in 2006, during Israel's campaign against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, that he has no stomach for the slog of ground warfare.
On the other hand, Israel can "win" if it can knock out Hamas' claim to be the legitimate representative of the Gazan people. Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, whom I met and talked with for an afternoon in October 2007, writes that the attacks have already caused Hamas to lose much legitimacy.
Hamas appears to have lost some of its credibility due to the fact the Islamist movement was unprepared for the surprise offensive - a fact that contributed to the deaths of dozens of policemen who were attending a graduation ceremony in Gaza City on Saturday.
Hamas's relatively moderate response to the operation (only a few dozen rockets and mortars that have killed one Israeli citizen so far) has also harmed the movement's reputation.
Prior to the attack, Hamas operatives had threatened to fire thousands of rockets at Israel, including Beersheba and Ashdod.
Hamas's top leaders in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud Zahar and Said Siam, have all gone underground out of fear of being targeted by Israel. Just a few days ago the three had proudly announced that they were not afraid of death and would be "honored" to join the bandwagon of Palestinian "martyrs." The general feeling on the streets of the Gaza Strip on Sunday night was that the countdown to the collapse of the Hamas regime had begun. As one local journalist put it, "We don't know who's in control of the Gaza Strip. The feeling is that the Hamas regime is crumbling."
The question is, though: who or what is ready to replace Hamas if it loses political power in Gaza? PA President Abbas has publicly been unsupportive of Hamas, even going so far as to blame Hamas for the Israel's attacks it broke its ceasefire with Israel. As Mr. Toameh notes, Abbas would like nothing more than for the PA to return to power in Gaza.
As well, there is good reason to believe that some important Arab states are not much sorry to see Israel take Hamas down a peg or three, much as they publicly denounced but privately approved Israel's abortive attempt to shatter Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. The reason? The Sunni states near Israel - Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt - are very concerned about Iran's rising influence in the Mediterranean Middle East. Iran sponsors both Hamas and Hezbollah (Hezbollah, or "Party of God," was a political entity in Iran originally; the Lebanese faction is a sort of franchise). Zvi Barel writes,
Thus far, Hamas has not succeeded in generating an Arab diplomatic initiative that would lead to a renewed cease-fire on its terms. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which view Hamas as an Iranian ally whose goal is to increase Tehran's regional influence at their expense, prefer to wait a bit in the hopes that Israel's military operation will strip Hamas of its ability to dictate terms. And without those two states, the Arab League will have trouble even convening an emergency summit.
Granted, such a summit has limited practical value. But its absence indicates that Arab solidarity with the Palestinians is crumbling under Hamas' leadership.
Middle East politics often seem opaque. There is much that goes on "behind the curtain" that we do not see. So expect to be surprised again in days to come.
"1948, Israel and the Palestinians: The True Story" in the Wall Street Journal, May 2008.
"The neighborhood bully strikes again," by Gideon Levy, who denounces the campaign, based (apparently) not on a lack of justification but because Gideon believes the Olmert government to be incompetent in security matters (and for good reasons, I would add, as I explained here).
"A hard look at Hamas' capabilities," which are not to be scoffed at.
Israel is bombing intensely a large number of Hamas facilities in Gaza because of Hamas' has been firing dozens of rockets per day into southern Israel. A few Israelis have died or been injured. But about 250,000 Israelis are within the range of Hamas' rockets and most of them have been forced to stay in bomb shelters for extended periods every day for several weeks. News reports from Gaza say that this week israel has killed more than 300 people, the great majority of them members of Hamas, but many civilians have also been killed or injured.
Israel's bombing can be seen as disproportionate only if the Just War Theory principle of proportionality is (wrongly) understood as meaning a tit for tat response. That is, if Hamas kills three Israelis, Israel may retaliate, but not more violently than Hamas was. This is a severe misunderstanding of what proportionality means in Just War theory.
Just War theory recognizes that a nation has the right to defend itself from aggression. Proportionality does not mean that Israel cannot fight back with more violence than Hamas is using against it. It means that its response must be proportionate to the good Israel is defending. In this case, the good Israel is defending is the right of its citizens to live and work free of the threat of sudden death from Hamas' rockets. A proportionate response for Israel is to take all measures to eliminate this threat, but not to use more violence than necessary to achieve that end. A related principle, discrimination, means that Israel must discriminate between legitimate targets and non-legitimate targets, attacking the former but not the latter.
Israel's primary obligation is to its own citizens, and it is not to limit its retaliation to the level of violence that Hamas has been using against Israel, but to use the full amount of force necessary either to remove Hamas' capability or will to do so any more.
See also Richard Cohen's 2006 column, "A Proportionate Response is Madness."
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Of course, the central claim of Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which is commemorated on Easter. Christianity could never have been formed without the resurrection, although it could have been (and in fact was) formed without much attention to the birth stories of Jesus, which are absent from all the books of the New Testament except two, the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Yet I begin my inquiry into why Christmas with neither of those gospels, but with the Gospel of John. The Fourth Evangelist begins his Gospel this way:
John 1:1-4, 12-14: 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.Christians call the birth Jesus the Incarnation, the being born into flesh of deity. Unlike Judaism, Christians conceive of the deity as a Trinity, three persons united in one godhead: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Ever eager to avoid patriarchy and sexism, the "progressives" of the Church today prefer, "Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, which simultaneously commits two heresies. One, it depersonalizes the Trinity, which consists of persons in relation to one another, to humanity and the cosmos at large, and two, it reduces the godhead to a small collection of role players or functionaries rather that a fullness of the godhead. But that’s all for another post, perhaps.)
12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
The theology of the Trinity followed rather than preceded the life of Jesus. Of course, the Jews affirmed the Oneness of God, and the most common translation of the Sh’ma, the traditional call to worship of the Jews, is, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One" (Deut. 6:4) Scholars of Jewish theology point out that the Spirit of the Lord is also referred to in unique ways in the Jewish Scriptures and may be understood as referring to a special presence of God with his people, although not really as a separate person of a unified godhead.
It was the resurrection of Christ and his Ascension into the heavens that forced the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, the scope of which is beyond my point here. Suffice it to say that the deity long proclaimed by the Jews, including, of course, Jesus, came to be understood by the Church Fathers (the church’s leaders who followed the apostles) as a unified godhead consisting in three persons.
Christians say that the birth of Jesus is the Incarnation into full human being of the second person of the Trinity, the Son, and so Jesus was God-being-human. Jesus is thus understood by Christians to be a special and unique presence of the deity with humankind and the created order - not the only presence by any means, but a "never before, never after" presence. So Matthew’s Gospel cites the Hebrew prophet Isaiah to call Jesus Emmanuel, meaning "God With Us."
The apostles and the early churches were all Jews before they began following Christ. They retained their Jewish beliefs. In fact, all the apostles were Jews to begin with and remained so until they were martyred, save John, for following Christ.
The most important thing that the Christians brought with them from Judaism was the theology of covenant. The children of Israel who followed Moses out of Egypt, the focal event of Jewish history, made the Covenant of Sinai with God at that mountain, which became was focusing theological statements of Jewish faith.
For the Jews, the sign of their covenants with God (of which Sinai’s is central, but not solitary) is circumcision. For Christians the sign of their covenant is Christian baptism. Christians do not claim to be under Sinai's covenant, but under the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper, now celebrated by churches as the Eucharist, also referred to as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.
The only mention of the new covenant in the Jewish Scriptures is by the prophet Jeremiah, in the 31st chapter of the book bearing his name. Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant begins,
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt ... .Modern scholars debate whether Jeremiah was referring to a new covenant that would entirely supplant and replace the covenant of Sinai and its related covenants, or renewal/restoration of the historic covenants, which Jeremiah clearly thought had failed. No prophet after Jeremiah picked up on the new covenant, nor did Jeremiah mention it but this once.
At his Last Supper with his disciples, said St. Paul, Jesus "took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." However, that’s all that Jesus ever said about the new covenant. Jesus never explained the relationship between himself and the shedding of his blood to the new covenant foretold by Jeremiah.
Nonetheless, Jesus himself, and his apostles after his resurrection, saw Jesus as a unique and personal representation of God among human beings. John said that, "The Word became flesh and lived among us. We have seen God’s glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son."
Christians believe that the incarnation of God as human being was the decisive event in human history because the incarnation changed God’s relationship to us and our relationship to God. The incarnation means that human beings can see, hear, and know God in ways never before possible. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus told his disciple Philip.
The Incarnation of God in Jesus means that in Christ, God placed himself at the mercy of all the things which we endure. Jesus became tired and hungry. He was dependent on the charity of others for food and shelter. He lost his patience with other people and became angry; the Gospels record both. There is nothing we experience that Jesus did not know. In every way that we are human beings, so was God in Christ. Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us.
In so acknowledging, we recognize the bond that God has established with us, and its revelation in Jesus. God did not stay distant from us, remote and isolated. In Jesus, God chose to live with humanity in the midst of human weakness, confusion, and pain. To become flesh is to know joy, pain, suffering, and loss. It is to love, to grieve, and someday to die. The incarnation binds Jesus to the “everydayness” of human experience.
When someone receives Christ as Christ was sent – the unique embodiment of the eternal God – and when someone believes in the name of Jesus, God makes him a son or her a daughter of God. It takes a second birth to be made a child of God, a birth of the spirit, not of flesh. We are reborn from above. Jesus said, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’”(John 3:6-7).
So we become brothers and sisters of Christ in the family of God. The New Testament book of Hebrews teaches, “Both the one who makes people holy [that’s God] and those who are made holy [that’s you and me] are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:11). In a way, the Nativity is an adoption ceremony of all humanity as God’s actual children.
This kind of relationship is, I think, somewhat different from the historic Jewish understanding of themselves as "children of Israel," which (Daniel, correct me if I'm wrong) refers to their descendancy from the House of Jacob, whom the Lord renamed Israel. Christians place (or should place ) no importance on physical genealogy; the Christian New Covenant depends not on lineage but on rebirth by the Holy Spirit through the Lordship of Christ. Hence, Jesus said that his real "mother and brothers" are "those who hear God's word and put it into practice."
That is the significance of Christmas for Christians people, and the basis of Christian proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The apostles saw the life, work and resurrection of Jesus as a natural continuation of the history and covenant theology of their own people, the Jews, although with a new twist, centered on an historical person whose significance and very identity was a sharp departure from previous figures in Jewish history. For this reason, and others, Christ following did not survive more than a couple of generations within Judaism. A fuller historical inquiry is for another post sometime. Suffice now to say that Christianity at its finest is aware of its daughterhood of Judaism, and at its worst - well our history is sadly self-explanatory of that.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
An image taken by Hubble Space telescope and released on Thursday by European Space Agency showed a pair of gravitationally interacting galaxies called Arp 147, photographed on October 27-28, 2008. Arp 147 lies in the constellation of Cetus, more than 400 million light-years away from Earth. [link]The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. -- Psalms 19:1
Thursday, October 30, 2008
When she and her fellow charity workers had started this ministry they had decided not to require means tests of the people who came to eat. Means tests - requiring the recipients offer evidence they could not afford to pay for the meals - would be degrading, they concluded. The poor were beaten down by life enough without the church adding to it.
Yet after several weeks the sister had changed her mind. The soup kitchen initially attracted diners who were clearly homeless, near-indigent or working poor. But as time went on, she observed the diners were better and better dressed. They were cleaner, obviously more healthy. At first, a large number of diners had walked to the kitchen, but now most drove, and as more time passed, older cars parked outside gave way to newer cars, then expensive cars. The kind of person who first began eating there became rarer and rarer.
The nun concluded that they should have required means testing to protect the poor. It was clear to her that they were now running a kitchen serving free food to people of substantial resources, not the poor they intended to serve.
"Which among you," asked Jesus, "when asked by your child for bread, would give him a stone?" Well, none of us, of course. And which of us, encountering someone who truly could not afford his next meal, would fail to buy it for him?
Personal charity and works of compassion are basic requirement of Christian ethics. But Christian people with best of intentions go awry when they attempt to make their personal ethics public policy. Compassion is bad public policy.
I table-talked once with several of my ministry colleagues at a seminar, some of whom insisted that health care should be free for the poor, meaning, of course, that the government will pay for it - meaning of course, the non-poor will pay for it.
As one of the seminar’s presenters pointed out, the non-poor are already paying for the poor’s health care. Heath insurance premiums are padded to cover the costs of treating the uninsured. In 2003, wrote Ezekiel J. Emanuel and Victor R. Fuchs, "the average health insurance premium for a family of four [was] about $9,000." It's $12,000 or more today. And part of that premioum pays costs for the uninsured. Make no mistake, the poor don’t receive high-quality care except for emergency-room visits, but that is where they tend to get almost all their health care. Our taxes also pay health care costs. Of the $2.26 trillion the United States now spends about on health care, the government pays more than 45 percent.
Individuals exercise compassion, defined by the Oxford dictionary as "sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings and misfortunes of others." Governments exercise justice. Justice is only accidentally compassionate because justice, to be justice, must balance the valid, competing needs of persons and groups within society. Justice attempts to answer, "What is right, what is fair?" Justice is enforced against the will of at least one of the contending parties. Hence, justice is at its foundation coercive.
Compassion, though, seeks to alleviate shortcoming, suffering or pain, to heal in body, mind or soul. Compassion cannot be enforced. I could not compel a stranded motorist I encountered one day to accept my aid, because it would have been literally criminal to do so. In offering aid, I did not have to balance competing claims for my time and money because there were no claims and could not be any. The issue of aid was not what was right or fair, but what was possible.
Compassion is self limiting; one is compassionate to whom one will to the extent of the resources one decides to donate. There are, say, 50 hungry people. You buy lunch for 15, maybe 25, 45 or all. You stop when you can afford to buy no more or simply when you decide you have spent enough and still want to have enough to buy a new DVD. There is no guilt on anyone’s part because no one has done anything wrong. You were under no legal obligation to buy anyone lunch in the first place, so choosing to feed some, not all, is your free choice. The others had no rightful claim to your money.
But justice is only roughly self limiting. An employer who cheated his employees of some of their wages for a time, totaling $25,000, cannot plead for reduced judgment because he has only $10,000 in the bank. The court will hold still him liable for all of it, plus lost interest and punitive fines and perhaps prison. The employees have a rightful claim that the employer may not rightfully deny.
Justice attempts to make right or compensate wrongs done by persons or groups against others. Compassion attempts to make more level the relationships of resources or care between persons or groups of persons.
Compassion makes a very poor guide for justice. Compassion can exist only when there is no right to receive it. A judge, for example, cannot be justly compassionate. For a judge to show compassion for one party to a case is to treat another party unjustly. Showing compassion to a burglar by an unwarranted light sentence is to rob the victim’s family of their rightful claim that the burglar will be fairly penalized. And it puts at risk larger society, which has the right to expect that burglars will not soon be turned loose to rob again.
Similarly, compassion for the victim’s family that leads to an overly harsh sentence - life in prison, for example, for a first offense when no one is injured - sets aside the rightful claim of the convict that his punishment will be consonant with the crime. Likewise, society has a rightful claim not to bear the burden of supporting him for a lifetime for commission of one, non-violent offense.
The fact that different groups have different interests that must be sometimes balanced and sometimes found to be right or wrong is what seems to escape many churches’ proclamations about public policy. The pronouncements tend to be personal compassion writ large, into state policy, then to be coercively enforced.
Case in point: a few years ago, identification cards began to be issued by the Mexican consulate in Tennessee, including at least one year in Shelbyville. Anyone care to guess how many card recipients are in the US illegally? Shelbyville is the center of Tennessee Walking Horses, a major equestrian industry. A man who was senior manager of a large Walking Horse ranch told me that the whole industry would "dry up" if its illegal-immigrant workers were taken away.
From compassion, some people say that illegal immigrants should be allowed to enter the US and work here unhindered. They come here only for economic opportunity, after all, having no prospects for personal advancement in their home country (Mexico, for most of them).
But this argument also exposes the emotional blindness of wishing to make compassion public policy. For when compassion is moved into the large-scale public arena, its focus is too narrow to promote the general welfare. Amnesty for illegal immigrants (whether by proclamation or non-enforcement, which is what we have today) means depriving others of something they to which they have a rightful claim.
I guarantee that the jobs the Walking Horse illegal aliens are working existed before they moved here. Ranchers had to mend fences, shovel barns and bale hay long before Mexicans moved here in numbers. But who was doing that labor before? Not business executives. Not otherwise idle, bon-bon eating housewives. The American working poor made the ranches go and it was they whom the aliens displaced. But those displaced have a rightful claim to such jobs over persons who are at-large criminals, which is literally what illegal aliens are.
There is a long list of other groups who have rightful claims adversely affected by the issue, but that’s not the point of this essay. My point is that compassion fails as policy because it is impossible to be fairly compassionate, except with one’s own resources. Making compassion into policy or law for society compels others to conform to your idea of compassion, trampling on their freedom to be compassionate according to their own lights or to be hard-hearted as they wish. And compassion that coerces is not compassion at all; it is tyranny.
Systems of justice may be tyrannical, too, of course. That is why Western political philosophy has promoted mercy to temper justice. Mercy is not the same as compassion, though as a personal quality mercy and compassion are closely related. William Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice,
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,In terms of justice, though, "clemency" is probably a better word, indicating mercy shown toward one who has offended, but whose punishment or rehabilitation is either completed sooner than expected, or earned during the course thereof.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
'T is mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s,
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. (Act iv, sc. 1.)
Not only mercy tempers justice. Religion has served that purpose in Western history also, as have Enlightenment philosophies of individual rights and the idea that the locus of state sovereignty lies in the people, not the state apparatus. But justice remains coercive at base, serving no one perfectly but (hopefully) all as fairly and unobtrusively as possible. However, this is what compassion cannot do.
I find, then, that I have arrived at the place theologian Reinhold Niebuhr arrived several decades ago.
Reinhold Niebuhr, a professor of Christian ethics, was one of the most influential theologians of the last century. In his work, Moral Man in Immoral Society, Niebuhr explained that while individual persons live generally moral lives, high morality is difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups as a whole. Very rarely does a group of persons comport itself better than individuals do in personal relationships. When human beings engage in collective activity, Niebuhr said, they are overwhelmed by an inability to be moral. The larger the group, the greater this inability is.
Niebuhr was specifically addressing Just War theory in the works I cite here, but I think the same train of thought applies to issues of justice and compassion within societies.
Niebuhr concluded [in "Must We Do Nothing?" in The Christian Century, 3-30-1932], "The hope of attaining an ethical goal for society by purely ethical means, without coercion . . . is an illusion" of the "comfortable classes" of society. There never will be enough love and unselfishness among nations [or persons] to resolve the conflicts of history [or societies] only by ethical [or compassionate] means, even though there may be occasional successes now and then. It is part of humanity's "moral conceit" to think that human sin will not overwhelm individual morality [and compassion] when persons act collectively.
Until the return of Christ, wrote Niebuhr, human societies will never be able to conform purely to the ethic of Christian love. In the interim, we must structure our world based on justice, as best we can, even though communities of justice are inferior to communities of love or compassion. The best justice human societies can attain will only roughly correspond to divine justice. Human justice will always involve contests of power because different groups make opposing claims that they consider rightful.
Niebuhr concluded that the ethical goals of human society must not be sacrificed "simply because we are afraid to use any but purely ethical means." Nor, I think, should they be sacrificed because an ethic of love cannot serve as the fundamental ordering of society.
Yet works of compassion can indeed take on orders of magnitude that project them into the arena of justice, just not judicial justice. When acts of compassion come to affect so many persons that the order of society is changed, so is the nature of the society’s justice. Justice is, after all, only the "right ordering of things" in human affairs, as Aristotle pointed out.
I have in mind the work of Bangladeshi economist Muhammed Yunus. Banks in Bangladesh refused to loan impoverished women money to begin business independence. The average loan refused was 62 cents. Yunus reached into his own pocket and loaned 42 men and women in one village a grand total of $27.
Every borrower paid Yunus back with interest. The banks still refused to write loans. Reports "Vanderbilt Magazine," Fall 2003, p. 49:
Village by village, district by district, Yunus proved conventional bank lenders wrong. Twenty-seven years later, his pioneering approach to micro-lending has spawned nothing short of a credit revolution.His bank has been imitated by more than 7,000 other organizations around the world, including some in America. This is compassion writ large and well. It is personal; Yunus used his own money, not someone else’s. Yet its effects are transforming the social order of societies.
His Grameen Bank . . . has disbursed roughly $3 billion to more than 2 million borrowers in Bangladesh alone, allowing many thousands to lift themselves up from the most abject poverty. [italics added]
As for me, though, whenever I hear a politician tell weepy anecdotes about some unfortunates, then declare that "America is better than that," I lock up my wallet. I know he wants to make his personal sense of compassion into public policy, by coercion, using my money.
As it turns out, US Congressman David Crockett had some things to say about this topic about 171 years ago.
I should also point out that some of my Christian friends will take offense at my claim that, "Compassion can exist only when there is no right to receive it." I say again: works of compassion are a duty of Christian disciples. But they are done in gratitude for and imitation of the saving work of Christ. Hence, they are unenforceable by human agency and are voluntary. Compelling others to perform one’s own idea of compassion is the very opposite of compassion, for compassion cannot coerce others and remain compassion. Even so, the Scriptures are clear that we will be judged by Christ according to our works of compassion.
Another thought by Niebuhr: In February 1941 Niebuhr wrote,
Love must be reegarded as the final flower and fruit of justice. When it is substituted for justice it degenerates into sentimentality and may become the accomplice of tyranny. Looking at the tragic contemporary scene within this frame of reference, we feel that American Christianity is all too prone to disavow its responsibilities for the preservation of our civilization against the perils of totalitarian aggression. We are well aware of the sins of all the nations, including our own, which have contributed to the chaos of our era. We know to what degree totalitarianism represents false answers to our own unsolved problems - political, economic, spiritual. Yet we believe the task of defending the rich inheritance of our civilization to be an imperative one, however much we might desire that our social system were more worthy of defense. We believe that the possibility of correcting its faults and extending its gains may be annulled for centuries if this external peril is not resolutely faced.This is a critical point. Niebuhr was saying that if Christians refrain from maintaining justice, even by force if necessary, because they substitute love for justice, then the love they wish to promote actually becomes the handmaiden of tyranny. And of course, that is no love at all.
Monday, October 27, 2008
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them ... will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith ... such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.So just what does this mean today? Pretty much nothing. Strictly interpreted, Article 5's provisions are not tripped by an attack on United States' interests outside North America. One must wonder whether an attack by someone against Guam, a non-North American, American territory, would trigger Article 5, but the question is actually moot since there is no imaginable threat to mount such an attack.
So: Who is there to attack either North America or Europe? There are really only two threats reasonably imaginable - Russia and Islamist terrorists. Let's consider them seriatim:
1. Russia. The original threat for which NATO was founded, there's no chance that Russia either would or could invade western Europe now or in the far foreseeable future.
Certainly Russia's invasion of Georgia shows that Russia's militarism is alive and well, but the prospect of Russia invading western Europe is simple nitwittery. Russia, oil flush though it is, is not rich enough, militarily powerful enough, nor populous enough to extend a campaign that far or that long. Western Europe in aggregate is still more powerful than Russia militarily (on its own soil, defending its home territories) and is rich enough to outlast Russia in such a war. But the real bottom line is that Russia needs Europe peaceful and prosperous rather than wrecked and impoverished.
But what of the Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania? Certainly Russia could invade them, and they are NATO members. They are also defensible by NATO to some minimal level because their sea approaches are a short trip from Germany's and Poland's northern ports.
I am trying to remember the good reasons that the Baltics were admitted into NATO, but memory fails me except to remember that there were no good reasons. (Review NATO's own assessment and see whether it's held up.) At the time, even Russia was being talked about as a potential NATO member of some kind, political membership if not part of the military alliance. See here, for example. It was then presumed membership would have a tamping effect on Russian militarism which would help ensure peace in our time. Russia has in fact been a "partner country" with NATO since 1997. (Some “partner.” As Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that worked out for us?”)
Ukraine? Not a NATO member, and Russia could easily march in. But Ukraine is hardly defensible by NATO. From the west, NATO forces would have a very long ground journey, across NATO-member Poland, then another 300 miles just to reach Ukraine's capital, Kiev. The logistics problem would be immense, especially for ammunition and spare parts.
Ukraine’s sea approach, from the Black Sea, has a natural choke point at the Bosporus straits. The sea approach to the Bosporus has its own choke points, the Dardanelles strait which empties into the Sea of Mamara, between the Aegean Sea and the Bosporus straits. Fortunately, Turkey is a NATO member whose forces have been focused for decades on keeping the sea lanes open. Of course, Russia has worked the opposite problems for decades, too. So there would almost certainly be a battle royal there between NATO and Russian air and naval forces.
Finally, Ukraine is a big country, almost 800 miles east to west, 233,000 square miles, and NATO's manpower commitment would have to be correspondingly large, probably too large for NATO's existing forces, even under mobilization, since substantial forces would need to be retained in Poland and points west to deter Russian moves in that direction.
As well, western Europe's standing forces are too few to offer substantial, long-lasting reinforcements to deployed units. Many of their regular brigades are permanently staffed by regulars at a fraction of full strength, with the rest (usually one-third or even more) of the troops being reservists whose readiness level is substantially lower. If you use your reserves to man up your regular battalions, who exactly is manning the reserves? In all, since the dissolution of the USSR, Europe's defense planning has been focused on economy rather than war readiness.
Don't count on NATO's new NATO Response Force (NRF), which consists of only 25,000 troops of all arms.
This includes a brigade-size land component with forced-entry capability; a naval task force including a carrier battle group, an amphibious task group and a surface action group; and an air component capable of 200 combat sorties a day.A brigade-size ground force (5,000-6,000 soldiers) is barely speed bump size defending Ukraine or the Baltics. And 200 combat sorties per day would be exhausted before noon in mid-intensity operations.
Sarah Palin said in her Gibson interview that the US should push to admit both Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. I have two words: In. Sane. The idea that the United States should (or can) go to war to eject Russian forces therefrom is foolish in the extreme. A return of Russian occupation of Ukraine or the Baltic countries would be dreadful for the people of those countries. But it's hard to see what US national-security interest would make warring with Russia worth it. NATO's relations with Ukraine, very extensive since 1991, are almost exclusively political-commercial rather than military, or even political-military. Even the NATO Handbook admits tacitly that its goal is development of a market economy and human rights in Ukraine, rather than strengthening of NATO as a military alliance.
It may be argued that for the US to withdraw its NATO military membership would in fact invite Russian moves against Ukraine or the Baltics. I think Putin's government is more calculating than that. Putin, et. al., surely realize that moving against Ukraine would not evoke military counter-moves from NATO, whether Ukraine is a NATO member or not. The reason is very simple: NATO nations simply do not have the military forces, nor strategic "throw," to make the counter. Simply getting tactically significant forces to the right places in Ukraine, then supplying them, would be an enormous challenge that could well be insurmountable. Only recently have Canada and the UK begun to fly strategic-range airlift, C-17s manufactured by the US. Ironically Canada also leases strategic airlift capability from Ukraine, which has a fairly extensive collection of late Soviet-era Antonov heavy lifters designed for strategic airlift. Even so, the great majority of such flying would fall to the US Air Force.
In summary: Russia is no military threat to western Europe. And though its threat to the Baltics and Ukraine is more realizable, there is not much NATO can do about it in the event, anyway.
2. Islamist terrorists. Islamo-terrorists have already attacked both North America and Europe, it hardly bears pointing out. And what was NATO's response? Except for Canada and Britain, pretty much nothing. Even worse, near surrender: al Qaeda killed 191 Spanish train commuters in March 2004, demanded Spain's withdrawal of its forces from Iraq, and Spain rolled.
We'd also wish to ask just why Islamists would attack Europe in the first place (well, yes, they're terrorists) when if they just bide their time, most of western Europe will become substantially Muslim in just a few decades, and some nations majority Muslim (Holland may be majority Muslim by 2020).
What NATO has not done, even under Article 5, is actually fight al Qaeda or the Taliban (again, except for Britain and Canada). For example, Germany sent an entire special-forces detachment to Afghanistan. They literally never left their base camp for a whole year, then Germany brought them home. Except for Canada and Britain, this is typical of the NATO troops, paltry as they are, in Afghanistan. (NATO, qua NATO, had no involvement in Iraq.)
But let us imagine that al Qaeda mounts a truly devastating attack against a NATO capital city, killing thousands. Just how can NATO respond? It can't, certainly not for any response that would require self-lifting across strategic distances. The strategic transportation of NATO has always been oriented one way: US and Canadian forces flowing into Europe to defend it from the USSR, not forces flowing out of Europe to somewhere else in the world. NATO forces cannot go anywhere in the world in substantial force without the US Air Force or Navy carrying them.
Let us then ask the pointed question: Just how does continued NATO membership actually benefit that United States? I can think of only one way - forward stationing of US forces as a deployment point to locales farther east or toward the Middle East.
That's it. Is that worth the cost of national treasure and aggravation we have with the alliance, and which show no sign of abating?
There is another point that Mark Steyn touched on when discussing Sarah Palin's bright idea to bring Georgia into NATO. I can't find a link now, but Steyn pointed out that Georgia's birth rate has tanked more than practically any other country in the world. In fact, by 2050 there will be only 100,000 Georgian women of childbearing age, if current trends continue. So, he said, if Georgians won't have children to grow up to defend Georgia, why should Americans have children to grow up to defend Georgia? I can't think of any good reason.
And the same question can be asked of every other European NATO member, except perhaps Britain and France. The birth rates of Germany, Spain, Italy and every other NATO country except Turkey are below the stable replacement rate of 2.1 average births per woman, most far below. Italy’s rate is 1.23 births per woman , for example, meaning that Italy’s population could shrink by one-third by mid-century. (Turkey’s birth rate is about twice as high as Italy's.)
Again the question for NATO’s countries: if you will not have enough children to preserve your country, why should the US make up your deficit?
I think the United States should reassess whether the NATO alliance really is serving American interests. I don't think it is, and I don't think it will do better in years to come. Though we must stay politically engaged, I think we'd be better off withdrawing from the military alliance, and work toward building an Anglosphere military alliance in its stead.
Endnote: Yes, I titled the post having in mind Monty Pythons sketch from Life of Brian, in which some ancient Judeans ask, "What have the Romans ever done for us?" Unlike them, however, we have no important, affirmative answers to the question of my post.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Come here the Rev. Diana DeWitt bring us the word of God nightly, Sunday thru Tuesday, at 7 p.m.
Diana is former chairperson of the Tennessee Conference Worship Team and served on the Conference Evangelism team. She earned her M.Div. From Vanderbilt and holds a doctorate from Ashland Theological Seminary. She was selected as one of 80 Pastors of Excellence in North America for the period of 2005-2007 and is a member of the World Methodism Order of the Flame.
Tonight: “Expect God to Show Up” - Recognizing God’s voice and presence, looking for God in life's situations
Monday: “Expect God to Act” - Conviction, forgiveness and grace
Tuesday: “Expect God to Restore” - Restoration, healing and hope
So just for these three evenings, give a rest to your soul and let wait the cares of the world. Come, be refreshed and renewed in your spirit abide with God and with us.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Youth and adult classes will not meet.
The morning's schedule is:
9:30........................Snack food fellowship in Fellowship Hall
9:45-10:15 ........... Children's Sunday School.
10:30 .................... Worship service, with the Rev. Willy Lyle preaching
11:30 .................... Potluck lunch in the Christian Life Center
Everyone is invited to join us for this joyous morning!
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
I have set up a special web site to post the details. To learn about this exciting trip, June 15-24, 2009, please click here!
A quick look:
With my friends and contacts in Israel, I am arranging a special-itinerary tour of the Holy Land, including parts of the West Bank, for June 15-24, 2009. We will worship in Jerusalem on Sunday and have ample time for souvenir shopping. We will pass along the Via Dolorosa, starting with the historically-confirmed site of Jesus' trial and scourging. We will visit many more sites , too, both in Jerusalem, Galilee and the Dead Sea/Jericho area.
In addition to the many tourist or pilgrimage sites on the itinerary below, I have arranged for our group to visit the Golan Heights, the high land between Israel and Syria to the east of the Sea of Galilee, and receive security-related briefings from Israeli military and government officials, including the situation regarding Israel's construction of the security fence or wall that passes through Jerusalem and along most of the demarcation between Israel and the West Bank.
We also hope to visit the southern Israeli town of S'derot, which has been much in the news lately as it is located only about 1,100 yards from Gaza.
I am working with my friend Ari Marom of the Vered HaSharon agency in Israel to finalize itinerary and cost details. The great majority of the itinerary is firm now, but some elements may change between now and the travel dates.
The cost and what it includes
We need at least 30 persons to travel. The trip price, based on estimations of the airfare, is $3,425. Travelers wishing a single room in hotels will have to pay a supplementary charge of $550.
A deposit of $250 is needed to reserve your seat. Generally, this deposit is refundable until about 90 days before departure date, but that may vary depending on which airline we travel. Ari Marom is still working with airlines for the best combination of flight time and fare. With unsteady fuel costs, however, airlines will not lock in prices for June travel until about January.
Included in the cost
- seven full days of touring (17-23 June),
- lodging, two persons per room (single rooms available for extra charge)
- all entrance fees,
- breakfast and evening meal daily,
- the service of a full-time, experienced, licensed, English-speaking tour guide
- transportation in a modern, air-conditioned motor coach.
The only things not included in the price are lunches, beverages with meals and tips to the guide and driver (recommended about $7 per person per day, or $50 per person).
Cost and itinerary details on the Israel 2009 site!
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
One of the main thrusts of liberal Bible scholarship over at least the last 40 years has been to devise arguments that the Bible does not really mean what it says.
A ready-to-hand case in point: sexuality. The biblical proscriptions against certain kinds of sexual acts - homosexual acts, bestiality and adultery all alike are strictly prohibited - are as clear as anything that can be found in Scripture. But modern liberal scholarship has invented ingenious arguments that the proscription of homosexuality isn’t real, that what matters most is the "authenticity" of the relationship, whether there is love and caring, and then they claim that what is really being forbidden by the texts is not homosexuality at all, but pederasty, claimed to be quite common in the ancient Mediterranean world, and that "non-exploitative" homosexual relations are actually quite in accordance with the Bible.
Now, reconstructing the Bible is nothing new. Christians have been doing it for, oh, more than a thousand years. But what is distinctive about modern scholarship is what one of my colleagues, a Ph.D. candidate at the liberal Vanderbilt Divinity School, observed: In addition to interpreting the Scriptures in ways that suit them (not a new thing at all) liberal scholars have "demythologized" the Bible in radical ways. So radical, in fact, that it is barely recognizable in many of their works as revelatory of the divine.
"Modern biblical scholarship wants to liberate people from the Bible instead of immerse them into it," he said. "The Bible is presented as oppressive, patriarchal, exclusionary and ‘privileging’ certain people at the expense of others. Therefore, scholarship is highly concerned with providing reasons to reject the teachings of the Scriptures rather than embrace them."
What got me on this post’s train of thought was an essay by Kim du Toit (no longer online) on the demasculinization of American men.
Now, little boys in grade school are suspended for playing cowboys and Indians, cops and crooks, and all the other familiar variations of "good guy vs. bad guy" that helped them learn, at an early age, what it was like to have decent men hunt you down, because you were a lawbreaker. ...Now I think that Kim is over the top in his essay, here and there, but there’s no denying that it has struck a huge chord with a lot of guys. And its basic theme, once you work through Kim’s provocative language, is really quite simple: Manhood must no longer be defined by women, but by men. Specifically, men who are self-confidently masculine and don’t regret it, who don’t want to regret it.
What I care about is the fact that since the beginning of the twentieth century, there has been a concerted campaign to denigrate men, to reduce them to figures of fun, and to render them impotent, figuratively speaking. ...
Out there, there is a huge number of men who are sick of it. We're sick of being made figures of fun and ridicule; we're sick of having girly-men like journalists, advertising agency execs and movie stars decide on "what is a man"; we're sick of women treating us like children, and we're really [deleted] sick of girly-men politicians who pander to women by passing an ever-increasing raft of Nanny laws and regulations (the legal equivalent of public-school Ritalin), which prevent us from hunting, racing our cars and motorcycles, smoking, flirting with women at the office, getting into fistfights over women, shooting criminals and doing all the fine things which being a man entails.
Since I am in a religious vocation, Kim’s essay made me think of Leon Podles’ controversial book, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity. Leon’s complaints are very similar to Kim’s, except they are more, uh, genteely stated. Amazon’s book description states thus:
After documenting the highly feminized state of Western Christianity, Dr. Podles identifies the masculine traits that once characterized the Christian life but are now commonly considered incompatible with it. ... He contends that though masculinity has been marginalized within Christianity, it cannot be expunged from human society. If detached from Christianity, it reappears as a substitute religion, with unwholesome and even horrific consequences. The church, too, is diminished by its emasculation. Its spirituality becomes individualistic and erotic, tending toward universalism and quietism. In his concluding assessment of the future of men in the church, Dr. Podles examines three aspects of Christianity-initiation, struggle, and fraternal love-through which its virility might be restored.A reader comment on the Amazon page made the following point: " If Christianity keeps appealing to "feminized men" and rejecting the masculine, we just may see a masculine spirituality go hypermasculine to the cry of "Allahu Akbar!"
As the saying goes, on Sundays women go to church and men go to NFL games, either in person or on TV. Because men darn sure are mostly absent from Christian services (not Jewish or Muslim, though).
In an essay online, Podles writes,
Something seems to be creating a barrier between Western Christianity and men. Why is it that men in the west are so little interested in religion and that the men who are interested often do not follow the general pattern of masculinity? Why doesn't religion seem to interest men much, until they reach old age? ...Clergy don’t get off Podles’ hook:
It seems that the clergy are not unhappy with the absence of men. Women are easier to deal with: even feminists can be satisfied to some extent. Hymns and the Bible are being rewritten to expunge references to men; the few men in the congregation will not protest. ...
Because Christianity is now seen as a part of the sphere of life proper to women rather than to men, it sometimes attracts men whose own masculinity is somewhat doubtful. By this I do not mean homosexuals, although a certain type of homosexual is included. Rather, religion is seen as a safe field, a refuge from the challenges of life, and therefore attracts men who are fearful of making the break with the secure world of childhood dominated by women.
The clergy have long had the reputation of not being very masculine. The main line, liberal Protestant minister in the early twentieth century had a reputation for being soft and working best with women. They were seen as exempt from masculine trials and agonies, part of the safe world of women. As one layman put it, "Life is a football game, with the men fighting it out on the gridiron, while the minister is up in the grandstand, explaining it to the ladies."Now, why is that? After all, the apostle Paul was a man’s man:
23 Are they servants of Christ? ... I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.The Sissified Jesus
24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.
25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,
26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.
27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:23-28)
But maybe the reason that many clergy seem to be not terribly manly is that the church has made sure that Jesus is presented as something of a wuss, too.
As children in Sunday School we see our first pictures of Jesus as the good shepherd (see above, for example). They are wildly inaccurate. They show a Zest-fully clean Jesus with his Breck-shampooed, blow-dried hair, in a spotless, Bill Blass robe, carrying a little lamb on his shoulders. This is an inoffensive, domesticated Jesus, a tamed Jesus who looks good. This Jesus is a poster boy for people who think that Christian faith is supposed to make them popular. But if this wimpy, smarmy, gender-confused, television-evangelist-looking Jesus ever told you, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (cf: John 10:11), you’d laugh out loud in derision. And if it ever occurred to you that your life was literally in his hands, you’d cry in despair.
A good shepherd Jesus would have grubby clothes that were torn and tattered, perhaps bloodstained. He would clip his hair short because it would be constantly dirty. Soot and sweat would be streaked across his face. His hands would be grimy. His aroma would prove he is unacquainted with Ban Roll-on. The type of fellow who can do the work that shepherding requires is not the kind of fellow any of us would invite home to meet mother. Good shepherds don’t appeal to persons of refined sensibility.
A good shepherd Jesus would look out of place in our Ethan Allen dining rooms, and probably in most churches as well. This is not a Jesus who has time to idle the day away with us. Jesus the good shepherd has countless skills and strengths, honed on this earth to rescue us from countless dangers, including ourselves. Bluntly, a good shepherd is ready for battle at any time.
“Ours is a Jesus who is powerful enough to grab us from the jaws of a hungry wolf. But at the same time Jesus is also powerful enough to grab us from the jaws of too much civility and niceness, from our need to have a pretty picture and a happy ending to the story, from our hiding from the raw, sometime coarse and smelly vitality of life itself” (Rebecca Young).In the tame, domesticated and frankly feminine images of Jesus we use, we suppress Jesus’ masculinity, of which shepherding is one example. It’s a cultural thing, you see. Boys and men find it overwhelmingly important to be seen as manly men, independent, confident and self-assured, but Christian faith is culturally seen as a sort of wimpy crutch for people who can’t handle life on their own. Such stereotypes are reinforced by artistic and verbal images of Jesus that I think would make his first apostles wonder just whom we are talking about.
When King David was just a lad, he volunteered for single combat with Goliath. David was a shepherd, a tough guy, alert to dangers. He stood before King Saul. Saul denied David the right to confront Goliath in single combat because David was so young.
But David said to Saul, "I have been keeping my father's sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. I have killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them. . . .That’s what good shepherds do.
There’s a lot more to this general topic, especially as relates to the feminization of culture at large (Kim’s complaint), the feminization of university curricula, which Geitner Simmons writes about without really intending to:
In short, the masculine has been driven from the curriculum. Then there is The Feminization of the American Military, which offers this pointed observation:
A freshman at Bowdoin cannot take a course in Shakespeare. A freshman at Amherst isn't offered a single overview of European or American history. A freshman at Williams will find that what few courses review U.S. or European history focus on "race, ethnicity and gender," rather than the given period's main developments. A freshman at Wellesley will find that the few broad English courses offered to freshmen focus on gender and not the books' themes and styles.
Writing in the 1940’s in opposition to the ordination of women as priests, C. S. Lewis argued that the issue was not whether females could perform the caring and instructional missions of the clergy as well or better than most men, but rather that the Church was a creature of revelation, not reason, and that the Lord had chosen to place the burden of priesthood on men. But if men had become insufficiently masculine to perform their appointed duty, the solution was hardly to call upon those who were not masculine at all. We arrived at our current impasse over women in combat for the simple reason that not enough American men could be found to perform a masculine duty. And if our only solution — and it appears that it is — is to call upon those who are not masculine at all, then we may reach the point when— as Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings to be fruitful.”This essay is plenty long enough now, so I’ll let Podles have the last word. Referring again to the general absence of men in churches, he says:
Neither has the absence of men left women untouched. Unfortunately, women have been forced into the unnatural mold by Christians' misunderstandings of the feminine. Much of current feminism is an understandable reaction against the caricature of feminine roles. The breakdown of the proper relationship of masculinity and femininity, male and female, Adam and Eve, is at the root of many of the churches failures in the modern world, but this situation would not surprise the author of Genesis.Update: Glenn Reynolds refers us to a Salon essay on the Berenstain Bears syndrome, the kids books in which Papa is consistently presented as a loser, a "post-feminist Alan Alda fumbling wimp," as Charles Krauthammer put it.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Prayer is, in a sense, God's suggestion box; which is why many think that not all prayers are answered and why some, like the Tibetans, think that if you repeat a prayer often enough it gets noticed and answered. This irritating approach to prayer probably cost them their nation even though it hasn't shut them up. In general, it is probably not a good idea, but who am I to criticize? I'll leave that to the Dalai Lama who seems to be carrying on just fine.
But the main thrust of Gerard's piece about unanswered prayer"concerns God's work load.
He's one God who is running a very big universe. Perhaps He's got the whole thing franchised and He's running thousands of universes in a host of different dimensions, all with local variations to the main menu. We don't know. We can't know. But if you grant even one universe to this one God, you've got to admit this would be a very busy Supreme Being. Even being omnipotent and omnipresent and omniscient, You'd still have an In-Box beyond the human mind's capacity for bogglement. ...
The final upshot is that, even if God just steps away from his desk for a quick trip to heaven's free beverage machine, when He gets back he's confronted with at least 4,675,839 prayers presented as pink "While You Were Out Slips."
I submit that even the most omnipotent God cannot deal with incoming requests at this rate. ...
To me this is the most obvious reason that some prayers are answered while most are not. It's simply a question of time and resources, even for God.
Does it really happen this way? God knows.
Now, I like Gerard's writing a lot. He's a better writer than I am. I like Gerard personally, too, having corresponded with him over the years (we've never met).
All of which is an obvious preface to saying that I think he's missed the boat here. I will readily grant that prayers come to God at a rate that we can but poorly imagine - Gerard mentions the scene in Bruce Almighty where Bruce, a temporary deity, is so overwhelmed monitoring the prayer board that he freaks and hits the "yes to all" button. It causes no end of turmoil and even tragedy in the world, of course.
And I will not hide behind the old cliche that "God does answer every prayer, it's just that often the answer is no." This is true, but that's not what Gerard is getting at. He is addressing why so many prayers apparently get no answer at all. They are, as far as mere humans can tell, simply ignored.
But, "too fast, too many" is a reason I cannot accept. Here's why. The English philosopher-theologian Anselm of Canterbury, father of medieval scholasticism, postulated that God is “that than which no greater can be conceived." In philosophical inquiries that definition has withstood the test of time pretty well. (It was fiercely attacked at the time, but that's another posting.) After all, if there is a Supreme Being, then that being has to be, well, Supreme. There can be no greater.
So if God, the Creator of the universe, in unable to keep up with the workload of managing it, then I would not say that God is doing the best he can. I would say that the deity so described is not God.
Some polytheistic religions of the West did separate the Creator from the Manager and postulated that they are two distinct deities. Marcion in the second century was one of the chief intellectual figures of Gnosticism; he identified the God of Abraham as the Creator deity and the God of Jesus as a different deity. That is, the transcendent deity and the immanent deity were two deities. Gnosticism was finally overcome by the concerted efforts of early Church Fathers through strong counter-arguments.
But let us affirm here that the millennia-old traditions of the Jews and Christians is correct, that there is one deity who both created and manages the universe, and that this deity hear human prayers. For this post I'll ignore the issue that seems so important to some, whether God hears the prayers of non-Christians or non-Jews (depending on who is wondering, of course). Let me simply postulate that prayers are received by God.
Why are so many apparently unanswered? "Apparently" is a sort of dodge, of course, even though I do believe that some prayers do get answered in ways we may not recognize. But no more dodging. A couple my wife knew well a few years ago took the baby to the hospital because they found her in her crib not breathing. Life support, prayer vigils, the works. The infant died. Unanswered prayer? Definitely, and no dodging allowed that "the answer was no and God had a reason we can't comprehend." That answer lets both God and us off the hook too easily.
Besides, not all unanswered prayers are matters of life and death. I knew a Navy officer who earnestly prayed to pass her upcoming physical-training tests (maybe if she'd worked out more she wouldn't have needed to pray so much). Student pray before tests. And there is the phenomenon I've heard other pastors call the "weekly organ recital" - the Sunday listing of Aunt Erma's bad kidneys, Uncle Fred's glaucoma, and so forth.
God is not a cosmic vending machine for which prayers are the currency. The longer I spend in the praying business, the less I pray, or see the point in praying, for God to do something, darn it and the more I pray for him to lead me (us) to do something. I pray not that God will conform to my desires or needs of the moment, no matter how pressing they may be, but that I and others concerned in the prayer-situation be conformed more to God in the likeness of Christ.
Yet there is more necessary, I think. Prayer is only one part of engaging God. Remember Lieut. Dan in the movie Forest Gump? He lost both legs in Vietnam, would have preferred to have died, and finally tracks his old subordinate, Gump, to the Louisiana coast after the war. Dan joins Gump in running a shrimp boat. One day they are caught at sea by a sudden storm and Dan remains in the mast with the whipping rain and lightning all around, raising his fist to the storm and railing against God. Like Job, Lt. Dan is unable to dismiss such a God as delusion, even though it would be so much easier to do so. Finally, Dan finds his peace with God.
So many of us decline to encounter God except in storms of life or in pro-forma occasions such as a minute of silence now and then. Yet prayer is not simply some words uttered, no matter how heartfelt or sincere. Prayer is mainly a life lived out in godly ways for godly purposes. It surely can be no wonder that God refuses to acknowledge prayers seeking his miracles when we so consistently fail to acknowledge his call to us seeking our daily service. The conundrum of life-as-prayer is that we come less and less to ask God for an "answer" as for his presence come what may. Finally we realize that God with us and us with God is all the answer we really need.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
In much of what passes for public discourse on religion today, “born again” is either a boast or a pejorative put-down. Who constitutes the much derided and much feared “religious right?” Ah, yes, “born again” Christians. Within their own ranks, evangelical Christians frequently sneer at any confession of faith which doesn’t include some sort of personal Damascus road experience. All in all, “born again” Christianity is heavily laden with political baggage these days in the United States.
However, Jesus made no declaration of a particular political fealty as a condition of spiritual rebirth. The discourse simply makes clear that to be born again includes a personal belief in Jesus as the one by whom the world is saved (cf. Jn. 3:15-16).Within the Wesleyan system, salvation culminates in the parousia (the end of the present age), but isn’t limited to it. Salvation is worked out here and now; the Kingdom of God is to be achieved in this life, at least in part. So “born again,” to be religiously meaningful, must include not just an assurance of heavenly life, but a reorientation in this life.
An article in the “Journal of Psychology and Theology” compared survey results between persons who said they were Christians and those who did not make that claim. It also compared attitudinal scores among professed Christians by category (born again v. ethical belief system). The study defined “born again” Christians as “those who profess a personal saving relationship with Christ,” and ethical as “those who profess to follow Christian teachings as primary” (Paloutzian, 267).
The researchers wrote they expected the ethical Christians would score higher on the Social Interest Survey, motivated primarily by Christ’s ethical teachings. It was not so.
The born again group scored higher in social interest in both age groups studied, even though they are primarily committed to the person of Christ and secondarily committed to the ethics [of Christ]. These results support the notion that born again commitment fosters greater internalization of Christian ethics.The authors claimed their study’s results were consistent with previous research. Other significant points this study uncovered were that born again commitment is more likely to mature over a person’s life than the ethical type and that “an intense, mature and personal religious commitment fosters a sense of purpose in life and a greater concern for the welfare of others.”
I believe social-justice theologies need to recover a strong notion of personal spiritual rebirth if the world is to be transformed, oppression eliminated, racism expunged, economic injustices corrected. Jesus’ teachings are powerful tools for combating these powers and principalities of the present age, but only because they are empowered by the person of the Resurrected One. Jesus is not risen because his teachings were powerful, his teachings are powerful because he is risen. There is no gospel message without an Easter morning. There is no Easter without the empty tomb.
Citation: Paloutzian, Raymond F. et. al. “Conversion Experience, Belief System, and Personal and Ethical Attitudes” Journal of Psychology and Theology, 6:266-275, Fall 1978.