Wednesday, January 31, 2007

That Dang Old Enlightenment Again

Dr. David Bell, of Johns Hopkins, in a recent article here posits that we have over-reacted to the tragedy of 9/11. He makes a convincing case--one well worth reading--but what really interested me was his theory that this behavior is rooted in Enlightenment thought (I know, I know--we Orthodox blame the Enlightenment for everything.) He writes:

Seeing international conflict in apocalyptic terms — viewing every threat as existential — is hardly a uniquely American habit. To a certain degree, it is a universal human one. But it is also, more specifically, a Western one, which paradoxically has its origins in one of the most optimistic periods of human history: the 18th century Enlightenment.

Until this period, most people in the West took warfare for granted as an utterly unavoidable part of the social order. Western states fought constantly and devoted most of their disposable resources to this purpose; during the 1700s, no more than six or seven years passed without at least one major European power at war.

The Enlightenment, however, popularized the notion that war was a barbaric relic of mankind's infancy, an anachronism that should soon vanish from the Earth. Human societies, wrote the influential thinkers of the time, followed a common path of historical evolution from savage beginnings toward ever-greater levels of peaceful civilization, politeness and commercial exchange.

The unexpected consequence of this change was that those who considered themselves "enlightened," but who still thought they needed to go to war, found it hard to justify war as anything other than an apocalyptic struggle for survival against an irredeemably evil enemy. In such struggles, of course, there could be no reason to practice restraint or to treat the enemy as an honorable opponent.

Ever since, the enlightened dream of perpetual peace and the nightmare of modern total war have been bound closely to each other in the West. Precisely when the Enlightenment hopes glowed most brightly, wars often took on an especially hideous character.

Bell concludes:

Yet as the comparison with the Soviet experience should remind us, the war against terrorism has not yet been much of a war at all, let alone a war to end all wars. It is a messy, difficult, long-term struggle against exceptionally dangerous criminals who actually like nothing better than being put on the same level of historical importance as Hitler — can you imagine a better recruiting tool? To fight them effectively, we need coolness, resolve and stamina. But we also need to overcome long habit and remind ourselves that not every enemy is in fact a threat to our existence.

The Ransom

For those interested in a comparison of the Orthodox vs. Western interpretation of the atonement, check out David Wooten's excellent article, Ransomed from Death, Saved by the Father's Love: A Meditation on the Work of Christ here. As he notes,

...the point is not, “Who uses the words of the apostles?” but rather, “Who means what the apostles meant?” Nowhere is this seen more clearly, in my opinion, than in the area of salvation most hotly contended by Evangelicals and Orthodox—that of the “ransom” of Christ....Was the ransom paid to an angry, offended God the Father, as some Evangelical groups would claim....Or was the ransom actually a destruction of the reality of Death, the very real enemy of humankind, as the Orthodox would state, thus allowing humans to see He truly is, and not as our human passions would immediately have us believe?

Thanks, David.

Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America

The article here by William Pfaff in The New York Review of Books offers one of the best insights into our current foreign policy debacle, and how we got there. Pfaff sees a "larger intellectual failure," indeed, a "national conceit" where "it is something like a national heresy to suggest that the United States does not have a unique moral status and role to play in the history of nations, and therefore in the affairs of the contemporary world. In fact it does not."

For years there has been little or no critical reexamination of how and why the limited, specific, and ultimately successful postwar American policy of "patient but firm and vigilant containment of Soviet expansionist tendencies...and pressure against the free institutions of the Western world" (as George Kennan formulated it at the time) has over six decades turned into a vast project for "ending tyranny in the world."

The Bush administration defends its pursuit of this unlikely goal by means of internationally illegal, unilateralist, and preemptive attacks on other countries, accompanied by arbitrary imprisonments and the practice of torture, and by making the claim that the United States possesses an exceptional status among nations that confers upon it special international responsibilities, and exceptional privileges in meeting those responsibilities.

Other excerpts, as follows:

quoting Thomas Paine: We if we had lived in the beginning of time.

and Fukuyama: ...American economic and political policies today rest on an unearned claim to privilege, the American "belief in American exceptionalism that most non-Americans simply find not credible." Nor, he adds, is the claim tenable, since "it presupposes an extremely high level of competence" which the country does not demonstrate.[2]

and Michael Madelbaum: He describes the United States as already dominating the world, much as the elephant (in his genial comparison) dominates the African savanna: the calm herbivorous goliath that keeps the carnivores at a respectful distance, while supporting "a wide variety of other creatures—smaller mammals, birds and insects—by generating nourishment for them as it goes about the business of feeding itself."[6] Everyone knows the United States is not a predatory power, he says, so everyone profits from the stability the elephant provides, at American taxpayer expense.

Elephants are also known to trample people, uproot crops and gardens, topple trees and houses, and occasionally go mad (hence, "rogue nations"). Americans, moreover, are carnivores. The administration has attacked the existing international order by renouncing inconvenient treaties and conventions and reintroducing torture, and arbitrary and indefinite imprisonment, into advanced civilization. Where is the stability that Mandelbaum tells us has been provided by this American military and political deployment? The doomed and destructive war of choice in Iraq, continuing and mounting disorder in Afghanistan following another such war, war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, as well as between Hamas and Fatah, accompanied by continuing crisis in Palestine, with rumbles of new American wars of choice with Iran or Syria, and the emergence of a nuclear North Korea —all demonstrate deep international instability.

And this from George Kennan's 1993 autobiography:

He did not think that democracy along North American and Western European lines can prevail internationally. "To have real self-government, a people must understand what that means, want it, and be willing to sacrifice for it." Many nondemocratic systems are inherently unstable. "But so what?" he asked. "We are not their keepers. We never will be." (He did not say that we might one day try to be.) He suggested that nondemocratic societies should be left "to be governed or misgoverned as habit and tradition may dictate, asking of their governing cliques only that they observe, in their bilateral relations with us and with the remainder of the world community, the minimum standards of civilized diplomatic intercourse."[8]

With the cold war over, Kennan saw no need for the continuing presence of American troops in Europe, and little need for them in Asia, subject to the security interests of Japan, allied to the United States by treaty. He deplored economic and military programs that existed in "so great a profusion and complexity that they escape the normal possibilities for official, not to mention private oversight." He asked why the United States was [in 1992] giving military assistance to forty-three African countries and twenty-two (of twenty-four) countries in Latin America. "Against whom are these weapons conceivably to be employed?... [Presumably] their neighbors or, in civil conflict, against themselves. Is it our business to prepare them for that?"

Pfaff concludes:

History does not offer nations permanent security, and when it seems to offer hegemonic domination this usually is only to take it away again, often in unpleasant ways. The United States was fortunate to enjoy relative isolation for as long as it did. The conviction of Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the country was exempt from the common fate has been succeeded in the twenty-first century by an American determination to fight (to "victory," as the President insists) against the conditions of existence history now actually does offer. It sets against them the consoling illusion that power will always prevail, despite the evidence that this is not true.

Schumpeter remarked in 1919 that imperialism necessarily carries the implication of

an aggressiveness, the true reasons for which do not lie in the aims which are temporarily being aggressiveness for its own sake, as reflected in such terms as "hegemony," "world dominion," and so forth...expansion for the sake of expanding....

"This determination," he continues,

cannot be explained by any of the pretexts that bring it into action, by any of the aims for which it seems to be struggling at the time.... Such expansion is in a sense its own "object."

Perhaps this has come to apply in the American case, and we have gone beyond the belief in national exception to make an ideology of progress and universal leadership into our moral justification for a policy of simple power expansion. In that case we have entered into a logic of history that in the past has invariably ended in tragedy.

There's much to consider here.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

This is Progress

The assassination of Hrant Dink has apparently jolted the Turkish nation. The outrage and the consequent national dialogue over this senseless killing exposes both the absurdity of their entrenched Armenian Genocide denial, as well as the infamous Penal Law #301. The funeral story, here.

Many who gathered held red carnations distributed by the local mayor’s office, or waved circular black and white placards reading “We are all Hrant Dink” in Turkish on one side and in Armenian on the other.

Other signs in the crowd read “Abolish 301,” a reference to the article of the Turkish penal law making it a crime to insult the state or Turkishness. Scores of intellectuals, including Mr. Dink and the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, have been prosecuted under the article because of lawsuits brought by nationalists.

Tugrul Eryilmaz, 60, the features editor of the daily newspaper Radikal, was moved by the emotion and sweep of the march.

“Someone should have done this long ago,” he said. “We should have all reacted like this to Article 301, and to the killing of that priest in Trabzon. Well, better now than never.”
(emphasis mine)

Another account, here, offers guarded optimism that this tragedy might help thaw relations between Turkey and Armenia.

Despite the fact that the Armenian-Turkish border has been sealed since 1993 and diplomatic relations severed, Armenia is sending a deputy foreign minister, Arman Kirakossian, to the funeral, and the archbishop of the Armenian Church of America, Khajag Barsamian, also accepted the government’s invitation to the ceremony.

Earlier, the Armenian defense minister, Serzh Sarkisyan, called for improved relations so that Armenia could “establish ties with Turkey with no preconditions,” the Turkish news channel NTV reported.

High-level Turkish government officials are expected to attend the funeral.

Turkey and Armenia have long been at odds over Turkey’s refusal to use the term “genocide” to describe the deaths of Armenians beginning in 1915. Many scholars and most Western governments say more than a million Armenians were killed in a campaign they describe as genocide. Turkey calls the loss of life a consequence of a war in which both sides suffered casualties, and has suggested that a group of envoys from each country analyze the history. Armenia has expressed a willingness to participate but insists that the border must first be reopened to trade.

Urban, cosmopolitan Istanbul has not always been particularly representative of Turkey in general. For that reason, it is encouraging to gauge reactions in other parts of the nation.

Most Armenian Turks live in Istanbul, the diverse and cosmopolitan center of Turkey. But the antinationalist demonstrations that followed Mr. Dink’s killing also surfaced in places as diverse as Izmir, the Aegean coastal city that is Turkey’s third largest, and in Sanliurfa and Hatay, which are close to Turkey’s eastern border with Syria.

“Public opinion in both countries, weary of the years-long conflict, had reached a point of explosion,” said Kaan Soyak, a director of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Commission, the only bilateral trade council of Turkish and Armenian executives. “That’s what lies behind the massive outpouring for Mr. Dink.”

And finally, this may at last be the catalyst for the repeal of Penal Law #301, which makes it a crime to insult "Turkishness." By and large, the enforcement of the law is directed at those writers and intellectuals who have spoken the truth of the Armenian genocide.

Mr. Dink was a staunch defender of free speech and like other intellectuals was prosecuted for insulting “Turkishness” and sentenced to six months in jail, though his term was suspended.

Bulent Arinc, the parliamentary chairman from the ruling Justice and Development Party, said he would back efforts to abolish the measure under which Mr. Dink was prosecuted, known as Article 301.

“It can be discussed to totally abolish or completely revise the Article 301,” Mr. Arinc said, adding that members of Parliament “are open to this.”

I have been inclined towards pessimism with recent trends in Turkey. If what I read here is true, then real change may be in the offing: positive developments that could impact Armenia, the persecuted Greek Orthodox of Istanbul, and perhaps even the Cyprus question. We'll see.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Truth--Still at a Premium in Turkey

I was saddened to read today of the assassination of Hrant Dink, a noted Istanbul journalist (here, here). Frankly, I was unfamiliar with him until today's headlines. Of Armenian descent, Dink did that which can easily bring on a death sentence in Turkey--he spoke truth about the Armenian Genocide. The mayor and other government officials are saying all the right things, and there have been demonstrations against this outrage. It will be interesting to see how Turkish popular opinion reacts. I suspect Europe will be watching...closely.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Situation Hopeless, But Not Serious

I wish it didn't have to be this way. My perennial political disillusionment, that is. I recall being keenly interested in state and national politics since the age of 12. Taking this stuff seriously has set me up, time and again, for disappointment after disappointment.

First, there was Jimmy Carter. Lord, help us. I was a true believer at the time--my first presidential race as a young adult. It didn't take long. My idealism was no match for the unbridled naivete and sanctimony, the malaise, Iran, the killer rabbit and all that was the Carter administration. I emerged from the Carter years a pure cynic. Reagan was an exception. I started off opposed, but warmed up to him over the 8 years. By the end of Bush, Sr.'s administration, however, I was convinced that his re-election would condemn the Republican Party to a quick extinction. I cannot now remember exactly what irked me so about Bush, Sr., but I'm sure it had to be something significant. And then there was Clinton. There wasn't any great mystery, here. But still, I expected better.

This brings me to George W. I have defended him far longer than I should have. Perhaps it was because he was a somewhat decent governor of Texas, known as a concensus-builder. And then my defense mechanisms kicked in after the 2000 election brouhaha, when the Democrats opted for their tried and true "we was robbed" response. Cries of election-stealing from the party that wrote the book on this sort of thing was too much to take. I defended the President in the early years against the knee-jerk Bush-haters both here and abroad. I remember arguing with my Turkish friends who contended, on the one hand that Bush was an evil, conspiratorial mastermind, and on the other hand that he was a doofus. I said you can't have it both ways--he's either one or the other. Actually, I think he is neither. In the aftermath of 9/11, I appreciated his resolve. And I initially supported our effort against Iraq. I never believed the "weapons of mass destruction" bit, thinking that merely a ploy to gain international support. But at the time, I saw it as--if not absolutely necessary--then certainly an understandable move in our on-going confrontation.

I was wrong. And I was wrong about Bush. What appeared to be resolve is looking more and more like pure pig-headedness. And now a week after his national address, I am of the mind that he is indeed a dangerous president, one who is both out-of-touch and out-of-control. I fear that in his attempt to obfuscate the current debacle, he is seeking to widen it. Last week, Paul Krugman noted in his Quagmire of the Vanities article:

...I began writing about the Bush administration's infallibility complex, the president's Captain Queeg-like inability to own up to mistakes, almost a year before the invasion of Iraq. When you put a man like that in a position of power--the kind of position where he can punish people who tell him what he doesn't want to hear, and base policy decisions on the advice of people who play to his vanity--it's a recipe for disaster.

I know, I know...Krugman, Rich, Kristoff and the NYTimes are reliably, consistantly anti-Bush. But what about commentators that should be in his corner, or are at least not doctrinaire in their opposition?

George Will likens our situation not only to Vietnam, but to Stalingrad, here.

Or Georgie Anne Geyer, here. In my view, Geyer has always been a voice to listen to. She writes:

The president, far from taking any guidance from the anti-war November elections or polls, has used them as another stepping-stone to his imperial dreams. Far from heeding the report of the James Baker III/Lee Hamilton Iraq Study Group, with its exacting equations, he seems to have used those 79 recommendations to decide what NOT to do....In short, having left the American people, the Democratic Congress, the Iraq Study Group and even his own generals behind him, President Bush strikes out alone on a strategy that, rather than making a smaller American footprint in the world, is making it immensely larger.

Geyer worries about signs of a widening conflict, from Somalia to Iran, and involving Israel.

The point is that, despite warnings from the American people through their vote, despite the urgent cries from our best bipartisan elites in the Iraq Study Group, and despite the advice of his own generals, President Bush is himself surging ahead, and let the cards fall where they may when this foolish game is over.

Meanwhile, moderate Arab countries in the area see a "nightmare scenario," according to even the pro-war Wall Street Journal, that would be a "much larger regional conflict that pits Sunnis against Shiites and could engulf the entire region, sparking a wider war in the middle of the world's largest oil patch." Their fear is seeing Iraq looking "less and less like a buffer between these two axes of Middle East power and more of a no-man's land that is bringing them into conflict."

So there is our post-election scenario for the next two years, bare of any of its civilizing foliage. Essentially, the same gang is there, doing the same gang-like things. The neocons lurk in the curtains off-stage, whispering to W. from the American Enterprise Institute that he must not be the man to "lose Iraq" and urging him on to Tehran. The generals speak out, but nobody listens. The Congress may be a hope -- we'll have to see.

But as for us, the people, I think we've got a pretty good idea now of what our leaders think of us.

Even Peggy Noonan, Reagan's speechwriter, is appalled. She writes, here:

What a dreadful mistake the president made when he stiff-armed the Iraq Study Group report, which had bipartisan membership, an air of mutual party investment, the imprimatur of what remains of or is understood as the American establishment, and was inherently moderate in its proposals: move diplomatically, adjust the way we pursue the mission, realize abrupt withdrawal would yield chaos. There were enough good ideas, anodyne suggestions and blurry recommendations (blurriness is not always bad in foreign affairs--confusion can buy time!) that I thought the administration would see it as a life raft. Instead they pushed it away....We don't always recognize deliverance when it arrives.

Right now, in the deepest levels of the American government, intelligence and military planners should be ordered to draw up serious plans for an American withdrawal, and serious strategies for dealing with the realities withdrawal will bring. It would not be the worst thing if the Maliki government knew those plans were being drawn up. It might concentrate the mind.

What is paramount is a hard, cold-eyed and even brutal look at America's interests. We have them. I'm not sure they've been given sufficient attention the past few years. In fact, I am sorry to say I believe they have not.

The Democrats--jockeying for 2008 position--have been quite vocal in expressing their opposition, but less forth-coming with alternatives. I think it remains for the Republicans to save George W.--and our soldiers--from himself. A few GOP Senators such as Chuck Hagel are attempting to do so. More power to them.

I continue to remember a line from one of my favorite movies, the 1962 Cold War relic "One, Two, Three." The erstwhile Communist trying to pass himself off as a Capitalist, mangles his lines and blurts out "situation hopeless, but not serious." For those like myself who allow themselves to fret about these things, the situation is indeed "hopeless." Fortunately, this is only the sideshow to what is really going on.

The Pentecostals

One of the more interesting articles in yesterdays’ NYTimes was A Sliver of a Storefront, A Faith on the Rise, the first in a 3-part story on the growth of Pentecostalism. The Times article targets a small storefront church in New York City, the Pentecostal Church Ark of Salvation for the New Millennium.

Though Pentecostalism, a strain of evangelical Christianity, was born a century ago in Kansas and is often associated with the stereotypical “holy rollers” of the Bible Belt, it has made deep inroads in Asia and Africa. In this hemisphere, its numbers and growth are strongest among Latinos in the United States and in Latin America, where it is eroding the traditional dominance of the Roman Catholic Church.

Experts believe there are roughly 400 million Pentecostals worldwide, and this year, the number in the city is expected to surpass 850,000 — about one in every 10 New Yorkers, one-third of them Hispanic. Precise numbers, however, are hard to come by because there are scores of denominations and no central governing body.

Here, in cramped storefronts like Ark of Salvation, people whose lives are as marginal as their neighborhoods discover a joyful intimacy often lacking in big churches. They find help — with the rent, child care or finding a job. As immigrants, they find their own language and music, as well as the acceptance and recognition that often elude them on the outside.

They find the discipline and drive to make a hard life livable.

This phenomenon intrigues me, as it is totally outside of my experience. My background was in the opposite direction (not with liturgical churches, certainly), but with a Protestant church that was heavy on reason, logic, and biblical exegesis and very light on emotion. And given such a background, I suppose I was as condescending and dismissive of the Pentecostals as the next guy. All that is in the past now, and I try to look at them in a new light, realizing that their worship may have been more pleasing to God than mine had been. That being said, I am now even farther removed from that approach and still maintain that they do not have the theological “legs” to stand for the long haul. Looking across nearly 2,000 years of Christian history, Pentecostalism is just a recent blip on the screen, and is not a new heresy, but rather a re-casting of old, familiar ones. But, the Pentecostal movement is vibrant and sweeping the Third World, perhaps the most significant factor in contemporary Christendom. Something is definitely going on here.

Barnabas Powell, a former Pentecostal and now Orthodox, hosts an excellent blog, Sober Joy. Beginning back on November 9th, he posted a 4 part series on Pentecostalism. Powell contends that the movement's growth "is a result of a theological poverty in Western Christianity." Citing this trend in both Catholicism and Protestantism, he believes it propelled a counter-reaction in the birth of the various Holiness movements, what he calls "the poor man's mysticism and...a clear cry for intimacy with God." For someone like myself--unversed in the specifics of Pentecostalism--Powell's series offers an excellent insight. See here, here, here and here.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

MLK Day Thoughts

I have always respected Juan Williams, even more so after this interview in yesterday's Dallas Morning News. An excerpt follows:

Juan Williams has had it. The veteran black journalist – after a long career at The Washington Post, he joined National Public Radio and Fox News – has had it with aspects of black America that have failed to capitalize on the civil rights revolution. He's had it with a rap music culture that has become a "masturbatory fantasy."

He's had it with African-Americans who prefer to blame all their problems on racism instead of taking responsibility for their own lives. And he's most definitely had it with old-style black civil rights leaders, who in his view maintain their power by manipulating black anger and white guilt.

In his recent book, "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America – And What We Can Do About It", Mr. Williams delivers a strong – and highly controversial – challenge to black America. Mr. Williams, a civil rights historian and progressive pundit, brings his message to Dallas tomorrow night as the keynote speaker at a public symposium on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., sponsored by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Some Good Press

Two decent articles pertaining to the Orthodox Church have cropped up recently in the mainstream press. In the January 11th issue of USA Today, we find More Americans Join Orthodox Churches. Except for one major boner when they assert that "Orthodoxy was born from the Great Schism of 1054," the article is really not that bad, especially for such a topwater as USA Today. They even quote our friend Fr. Joseph Huneycutt, and give a plug for Orthodixie. Read it here.

And then Christianity Today (not always a friendly voice for Orthodoxy) posted an article by Bradley Nassif in recent weeks, entitled Will the 21st be the Orthodox Century? He begins by referencing Jaroslav Pelikan, always a good sign. Nassif, whether you agree with him or not, has interesting points to make. The entire article can be found here, and a few excerpts follow:

During the past two decades, mainline and evangelical scholars have rediscovered the creative relevance of the Christian East, with its insistence on the authority of the first 500 years of Christian teaching and practice....The problem with the usual Protestant approach to the Great Tradition, however, is the gaps and inconsistencies in retrieval efforts. To many, the Great Tradition is like a library, a place you go to pick out the books you find most helpful. You can discard the ones that no longer seem relevant, while choosing the ones that have proven to be of lasting value.

Simply put, I think more and more people will recognize the vital relationship between the major movements and themes of Christian antiquity and the organic life of the Eastern Orthodox Church from whence these themes came.

In two areas, especially, the Orthodox church has maintained its unbroken succession with Christian antiquity, and these areas are particularly attractive to an increasing number of Christians.

Scripture....whether they are aware of it or not, every time evangelicals pick up their Bibles, they are relying on the historic church's judgment on the colossal issue of canonicity! Without acknowledging it, evangelicals validate the authority of the Spirit-led tradition in determining canonicity. That same Spirit-led tradition has governed the Orthodox church over the centuries.

I believe an increasing number of people fascinated with the early church will see that the Spirit, the Bible, tradition, and real, historical, identifiable churches are inseparably united, then as now.

Historical continuity. I imagine that the deeper evangelicals delve into church history, the less they will confine the meaning of "orthodoxy" to the first 500 or 1,000 years. They will come to embrace the "whole story" of the faithful, not just the parts they personally like. …They will recognize that today's "rebirth of orthodoxy" cannot do justice to classical Christian faith without keeping it connected to the church that most fully produced and inherited its achievements.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Burnt Over Christianity

If you are not already a regular reader of Fr. Stephen Freeman's blog, Glory to God, then there is no better article to begin with than this one. A selection follows:

My contention was (and is) that the popular preaching of American Protestantism, had winnowed the gospel down to a few graphic images, easily preached and repeated. Those images were a caricature of the substitutionary atonement and a simplified version of Christian initiation (”accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior”) that came to be the stock of popular American evangelical preaching. Just think, American campuses were inundated with the “four” spiritual laws. Imagine trying to convey the Orthodox faith in four anything.

My further contention has been that what was once true of Upstate New York is now descriptive of an entire culture. America is the Burnt Over District. Most Americans, if they have heard a version of the gospel, have heard a very truncated, often caricatured version.

Problematic has been the dominance of an atonement metaphor (which is dogma for some) that portrays God as wrathful, vengeful and in need of appeasement. Often, at the heart of this image is an argument that God is “bound” by His justice and that His justice must be satisfied

Bookmark his site. You will be blessed by doing so.

Monday, January 08, 2007

State of Denial

I am a little late in slogging through Bob Woodward's State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III, as it was all the buzz back in September and October. I wasn't particularly eager to read the book, but felt as though I needed to do so. In his telling of the now-familiar story, Woodward proves too much, in my view, piling on anecdote after anecdote.

The work does confirm and solidify the popular perception of the major characters that has taken hold in the country. Bush is seen as well-meaning, but clueless, stubborn and worst of all, incurious. Cheney is, well, Cheney. Rumsfeld is an arrogant, tyrannical micro-manager. Rice is brilliant, loyal, but ultimately ineffectual. Powell is wise and insightful, but shut-out of the crucial decisions. One surprise is how out-of-the-loop Cheney appears to be once the Iraq war effort is churning along. When you start a war, they have a way of taking on a life of their own.

Another surprise was the long-term relationship between Saudi Prince Bandar and Bush. Theirs was a teacher-student relationship, with Bandar being a mentor of Bush from the onset of his Presidential itch. And in a book that is chock-full of outrages, what gave me pause was a relatively minor aside dealing with Bush's religious impulses and his relationship with the Saudis. A selection follows:

Whenever Bush saw or talked with the Crown Prince he referred to their shared, deep belief in God. The Crown Prince sent Bush a prayer, which the president told Bandar he used.

"This is the most precious thing I ever got," the president said.

Why take umbrage over this little item, of all things? I suppose this is a pet peeve of mine, and I tend to get a bit radical with it. Well, it is one thing to mouth public platitudes about how "we're all children of Abraham," and how the Muslim worships the God of Abraham just as Christians and Jews do--indeed, one has come to expect such talk. Such blather suffices for our ubiquitous "inter-faith dialogues" and such like. But it is altogether a different thing to actually believe it, as Bush apparently does. So, if I have this correct, Bush is fond of praying this Saudi prayer, a prayer sent him by the very Protector of Wahhabism. I'm sorry, but whoever equates the triune God with the Allah of Islam (that untidy mishmash of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, paganism and tribal superstition)--well, that person has a thin grasp of either concept.

There, I've got the rant out of my system. I'll put up my soapbox now and return to being calm and collected. But it is worse than I ever imagined.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Faith that Suffers

I appreciate the story by Fr. David Rucker in the recent OCMC newsletter. As the son of Methodist missionaries to China, he related the story of one of the persecuted house churches.

In a three-story house church in southern China...a Cantonese congregation...packed the unassuming structure from rafter to floor board. Every week they risked imprisonment by the communist authority and abandonment by their local community.... For a people without freedom, the hope these gatherings offered were far more valuable than the risk they cost....As David left that prominent Chinese house church, however, the head pastor, who himself had spent the past 17 years in and out of prison for his beliefs, took the opportunity to evangelize the evangelist. With a simple request, this devout man completely altered David’s perception of purpose, “Please, tell the people in America that we pray for them daily because they don’t have to suffer for their faith. It must be very difficult to be a Christian without suffering.”

For the whole story, read here.

As always, it's the small things

A recent encounter has been much on my mind. Due to the type of vehicle that I drive, I carry it to the dealership for all repairs. The only problem with this arrangement is that the dealership is 100 miles away, in Dallas. But hey, this is Texas. What's 100 miles? Anyway, a friend and co-worker was driving me there to pick up the vehicle, and I had promised him a steak dinner afterwards in appreciation.

Things went off without a hitch. I paid for the insanely expensive repairs with a swipe of the credit card. We then located a nearby steak house where we both ate very well. I am generally not one to eat much steak, but this seemed the generous and expansive thing to do. Anyway, the meal was delicious. Another swipe of the credit card paid the tab. As I was headed towards home, I pulled in to fill up the tank--again, all made possible with the magical card.

As I was pumping gas, a young man approached me. My defenses automatically went up. He wanted to know if he could ask me something. I mumbled something about not being from there. He then asked if I had any spare change I could give him. Again, I tried not to look at him and mumbled something about having only $5 on me and that it had to get me back home--100 miles away. (This part is true. I have taken off across 5 states with only $3 and some plastic in my pocket.) He turned and started walking off. I knew I had just blown it. I called out after him and said for him to wait and let me see what I could do. I opened my wallet and saw that I actually had $6 on me--a 5 and a 1. I pulled out the dollar and gave it to him. He thanked me and walked off.

If you look at such encounters as something of a test (and I definitely do), then I realized that I had just failed miserably. Almost any alternative would have been preferable to what I actually chose to do. I could have given him the $6 (it's not like there are no ATMs around). I could have given him the $5 instead of the $1. I could have been gracious in giving him the $1--which I was not. I could have said something--"God bless you"--anything. I just gave him the $1 and cut things off as soon as possible.

As I drove off, the chance encounter stayed with me, as did the words of Jesus from Matthew 25:31-46..that whole "least of these" thing. So, there is still a lot of work to do here. Maybe next time. Lord have mercy.