Monday, September 24, 2012

Muslims are bad; Atheists are Good?

Bill Maher slammed Islam on his show Friday Sept. 21 promoting the view that all Muslims are bad. This is disturbing particularly when this weekend there were several protests with signs supporting the US and the former Libyan ambassador as well as substantial attacks that destroyed radical anti-west militia centers. So how does Maher advance such conclusions? He cannot admit a presence of diversity. He refused to acknowledge a range within this religious group. Every social group in my observations exists as a spectrum, yes every group. I reject the notion that such a monolithic party, religion, philosophy; church, synagogue, or mosque exists. Uniformity might well be a goal for such social entities, but achieving it remains unmet. All human creations of thought systems exist in ranges anywhere one cares to examine a group with some precision (even within Islam, Shii and Sunni stand as rival parties). There are some proponents of atheism, though I can’t say if Maher argues in parallel fashion, who advance a view of a type of caring nonviolent practical atheists, “good atheists” if you will. They object to including “bad atheists” like a Mao or Stalin because such examples did not hold a pristine pure view. How convenient, this is for depicting atheism, how enlightened, how humane. On the other hand every religion must bear its dark side but not atheism, communism must be treated separately. There is no doubt that much bloodshed springs from religious motivations over the centuries. It is simply disingenuous however to set forth atheism as devoid of this same human dark side. The death toll dispatched by communism stands in the tens of millions. As a philosophy or world view atheism must bear its dark fruit just like all other human thought systems.

Friday, September 21, 2012

History has Consequences or why do they hate us.

Americans ask again and again, "Why do they hate us?"
Diplomatic relations between the US and North African and Middle Eastern States has been complicated and remains complicated.
A sullied history is a major contributing factor to understand the challenges the USA faces today. Several crucial episodes underly our current situation. These episodes include:
1953 The USA and Britain overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran and installed the Shah a torture driven tyrant with the aim to maintain control over Iran’s oil.
1967 Israel fought a preemptive war and occupied Syria, the West Bank (Jordan), and Egypt. No action was taken against the Israeli occupiers.
1979 Iranian students with government approval seized the US embassy and took diplomats hostage.
1979 The USA armed the Mujahedin to fight after the Soviet conquest of Afghanistan, when the Soviets left defeated (1989) the US abandoned the fighters that later became the perpetrators of 9/11
1990 Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait.
1991 The USA created a coalition of nations to successfully expel Iraqi forces.
2001 Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in NYC and DC the US armed forces occupied Kabul and much of Afghanistan to displace the Taliban allies of Bin-Laden.
2003 The USA initiated a preemptive war against Saddam Hussein and occupied Iraq. The occupation ended in 2011.
2012 Israel still occupies substantial lands seized in the 1967 conflict and is completing the construction of a security wall to ghettoize the occupied territories.
It has been US policy over most of these years to financially support Arab strong men (tyrants) to maintain order and good relations with the West while oppressing their own citizens.

Myth of Mobility vs. Statistics for Stability

It is obvious the persons come to our shores to escape tyranny and enjoy liberties unheard of in their native lands. Part of the reason for immigrants wanting to come to America is the ideal of opportunity. Anyone can become president. Everyone can become rich. However, this myth is not as bright as once publicized. In fact the “anyone can advance” story is quite tarnished. Persons born into real poverty confront challenges.  A “poor little rich kid” can’t even begin to recognize the benefits that he takes for granted. The destitute by contrast face threats daily. What will we eat for the next meal? Will it be cold tomorrow since I don’t have a coat for my child? How can I afford the medicine my child needs? Where will I get cash to buy gas for our rusted out car?

One of the neighborhood villages that fed the elementary school where my wife had taught for years appeared to have been a former migrant work camp. When teacher teams visited this block house community to meet with parents to talk with them about educating their children they discovered an amazing fact. None of the houses had any books, not one. Reading was not a priority because books were absent. This is the situation that many are born into. They are expected run a race in chains bare foot alongside the trained track-shoed well fed competitor. What further exacerbates this inequity is that many schools in our part of the county do not have enough textbooks so that every child can take one home to do assigned work. These students share textbooks in class.

Examine the time/growth graph above. This information demands that we acknowledge how various elements of society are doing quite differently in this “land of opportunity.” This is not about drive. This is not about talent. This is about a dramatically different set of conditions that enable the elite to advance while the huge majority of families remain mired through disadvantaged situations not of their own choosing. Look how the top 1% over almost 40 years had raced ahead unlike the 99% below them. Look at how the lowest fifth has made nearly no increase whatsoever over almost 40 years of trying. The same observations may be made for the next division of persons composing the middle three fifths, increase but not much. Even the second highest group making up the top fifth minus the uppermost 1% shows similar limited advances.

What this graph demonstrates is that for the last 40 years the American myth of upward mobility for most Americans is dead or on life support.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Writing for Wombs

History has many surprises. Things that we take for granted today were not always taken for granted. Contraception became CONSTITUTIONAL for MARRIED COUPLES on June 6, 1965 through the SCOTUS decision in Griswold v. Connecticut rejecting a Connecticut law criminalizing the provision of counseling and medical treatment to married persons for the purpose of preventing pregnancy. So when legislation that would restrict access to BC is proposed, this action confronts a right that has not even been recognized for 50 years. Returning to the time of prohibition would then not be going back that many years.

A woman's decision about when and where to have children is one of the most basic economic decisions she will ever make. Being pregnant and walking away from a career is a crucial way to restrict income growth and limit future job security. Surely any woman understands this. Access to contraception therefore is a major factor that relates to jobs, jobs, jobs.

After all of the fire and smoke back in February 2011 surrounding the facebook postings about the Mother Jones web article (it was about a news article) that I copied to facebook, where a GOP Representative was trying to redefine rape and what insurance can cover, I think is appropriate to address in more detail SOME of the issues raised and to attempt to dissipate the fog of debate.

My opening anti-GOP critical ploy was intended to set the stage for recognizing the inequity that such legislative action would entail with a rape victim by victimizing her once again. My ploy evoked this response which I did not even notice till later in the week. Crystal 'Erickson' Egland commented: “I didn't know you were pro-choice.” I have never thought of my position as pro-choice, especially taken in the sense of being pro-gun, pro for-profit health insurance, or pro free trade. To be clear I do not think the medical procedure of abortion should ever be chosen as a birth control method. This is a very uninformed and expensive substitute for the various contraceptives currently available on the market. Instead I hold a position that 70% of Americans would follow. This procedure should be chosen as a last resort in a very limited range of concerns where the life of a mother is threatened by a pregnancy, rape, incest, or when VERY substantial birth defects are identified and expected, such as the fetus is missing a brain. Thus I would view myself as pro-life not pro “innocent” life, since I personally have serious doubts about the ethical legitimacy of executions, police actions, wars, and other acts of state violence where the lives of living, breathing human beings are taken. Such are done without my approval. I would oppose spending my tax funds for such activities. How many died in the invasion of Iraq predicated on false claims but potentially great profits?

As far as scriptural teaching, abortion must be categorized as a “conscience question” (see I Cor. 8-10, Rom. 14-15) since it is not identified specifically within any of the sin lists or torah codes. Moral discussion about this or any other non-addressed act must be the product of reasoned theological extrapolation of relevant texts. Most and many debates within the Christian community involve heated discussion where all too often the parties assume that they promote “the one and only Christian” position when by contrast the apostle taught these concerns are really a matter of conscience. This is true even when some Christian communions and denominations promote the dogma that abortion is a sin. Such traditional claims still cannot really supplant the actual scriptural lack of evidence.

There were other comments in the chain that I would identify as logically questionable but this is all that I want to address now. Some others I might take up later.

Part 2. What did Jesus say?

The persons composing the crowds that swarmed around Jesus to receive his healing touch and hear his teaching were the common “people of the land.” We might suspect that such audiences would have shaped his teaching style and content to some degree yet his subjects also suggest that occasionally hearers with some means were in the audience.

Take for example, the Sermon on the Mount instruction,"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21, NASB) This logion does not find an easy application to persons who only own the clothes on their back. It makes more sense to see it as addressing the more well to do in the crowd. At the very least warns it against accumulating things, if not outright rejecting the amassing of physical wealth. The teaching raises concerns about motivation, goals, and material threats to holdings. Wealth and seeking more do not come off in a positive view here. The goal that Jesus promoted was investing now for future benefits in heaven (“Treasure in heaven” Matt. 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 12:33; 18:22)

An episode that Luke (12:13-21) alone presented pushes this perspective even more. When Jesus was confronted with a claim to make an equitable division of inheritance, Jesus refused to intervene. Instead he viewed this request as an opportunity to confront greed. His shared a story of a rich landowner. This rich man attends to accumulation and how to properly store the ever increasing product. His expansion for the future moves him to celebrate his present good fortune and future prospects. The surprise ending narrates his immediate demise, futile creation of more effective storage, and loss of his amassed holdings. The character is treated with contempt, named a “fool.” The parable explanation applies the story to any who might follow like misguided priorities (v. 21). This parable was spoken with reference to someone who questioned fairness of an inheritance settlement. We don’t know the economic status of the one who asked for Jesus’ help. The most we can say about the petitioner was he was potentially wealthy. What is clear is that the attitude perceived behind the request received a direct rebuke from Jesus. Here again wealth and seeking more do not come off in a positive view.

A third episode but an example narrated by all three synoptic gospels (Mark 10:17-31; Matt. 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30) is the encounter between Jesus and the “rich young ruler.” Jesus perceiving a personal weakness within this questioner omitted the final commandment from his list of several Decalogue rules, and love for neighbor (in the Matthew version only), to elicit from the young man a bold claim to complete obedience, “I have kept all of these things from my youth up.” (Mark 10:20). Despite the bold claim Jesus recognized the problem, “one thing is missing.” His aim in life concerned the seeking of more. Desiring more lies at the foundation for the amassing of wealth. The prescription as Jesus saw it was distribution of his holdings for the common good of the poor. He however, could not comply since riches were too great an attraction. Jesus used this occasion to acknowledge the difficulty for the wealthy to enter the kingdom before his surprised disciples. They hold a mistaken view that wealth is a clear sign of divine blessing. Jesus asserted the very opposite. Wealth is not a sign of the acceptance of heaven, but an omen of rejection.  To emphasize the degree of difficulty that the rich must overcome, he then uttered something of a well turned proverb, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Meaning: it can’t be done. Wealth builds an impassible barrier for the rich to assault, but they can’t. The good news that Jesus proclaims is that God can solve this impenetrable problem, what is impossible for humanity God can overcome. Here again it is plain to see wealth and seeking more do not appear in a positive light. To promote a future life of blessing in heaven (?) wealth is something to be abandoned and avoided. If the prior examples are inconclusive then I have two more to mention.

On occasion Jesus gave instruction related to riches in an even more direct manner. Luke reported that Jesus once gave a general command concerning the disposition of wealth, “Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33-34) And finally Jesus explained that the disposition of wealth is a prerequisite for being a follower of Jesus: "So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” (Luke 14:33)

From these examples it should be obvious that the way current American society views wealth and the way Jesus warns about it suggests that these perspectives are quite different and not compatible.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Part 1. What did Jesus say about wealth?

I was recently asked rhetorically if I was against being rich. I didn’t have time to reply. I’m fairly certain that the questioner assumed that my answer would have been NO. How many times have I heard the wise old correction to the fictional misquote, “money is the root of all evil” by adding, “money is not the root of all evil but the love of money.” (1 Tim. 6:10). I guess that means if you don’t love it, money is good. OK, I think that it is obvious that being rich is a key American value. Doing a reread of Rom. 12:2 is warranted here. Usually church people want to narrowly apply this text to so-called unchristian behaviors, smoking, drinking, cursing, and the like. This narrowness allows this important text to be coopted to decimate its impact and deter us from its real thrust. Such a reading misses the real focus of Paul’s warning that sets forward a clash of worldviews… how we think, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” How do you and I think about riches? Should wealth be our aim in life?

The overall tenor of New Testament teaching projects a negative evaluation of both wealth and the wealthy. It may be even justified to claim that this view dominates both testaments. Oh yes, I know that there are clear references to riches as blessing, the fruit of wisdom, even glowing depictions of royal wealth especially during the reign of Solomon. Yet these examples should not blind us to the biblical warning. People do not enjoy being poor, destitute, subsistent. For years I have joked with my students with reference to Paul’s discussion of personal contentment, “… for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am. I know how to get along in humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity…” Phil. 4:11-12 by exclaiming repetitively “I am willing to be tested with wealth!” It always gets a good laugh, but it really is untrue. Why, because wealth is a real threat to faith and morals. To parody a familiar saying, wealth corrupts and “absolute” wealth corrupts absolutely.

In the traditions passed down to us, Jesus did not have many positive things to say about wealth. Once Jesus did say that by following him faithfully and when on lost family or farms that his followers would materially benefit a hundredfold. (Mark 10:29-30). By contrast, he commonly spoke out frequently against seeking riches. If this was Jesus’ attitude and even a surface reading of the gospels will reflect this, holding an opposing view suggests that we are following the values of our culture not the kingdom. Incidentally this fits in with a more nuanced translation of Paul’s first phrase, “Stop being conformed…” When we start our faith pilgrimage we begin walking shaped by the society we live in, and over time we abandon its approaches, its values, its thinking to following the ways of Christ.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Nuclear Iran and a Nuclear Israel

The policy of MAD has served the super powers effectively for fifty years. During the Cold War each side knew if either started a nuclear exchange the other side would respond with an immediate deadly nuclear annihilation. This super threat approach has kept the “peace” for decades. Israel like Pakistan and India has an arsenal of nuclear weapons, Iran does not. Iran has cooperated with IAEA inspections in part, Israel has completely rejected the same inspections of its holdings and technology. Israel bombed both Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facilities in Baghdad and Syria’s Al Kibar reactor at Deir Al-Zor (check GOOGLE for more info). No neighbor has bombed Israeli nuclear sites to date. The policy of the Israeli leadership is obvious, they want to remain as the sole nuclear power among their surrounding Arab neighbors.
To speculate on plans to make we must wrestle with some key questions. Can a nuclear Iran be rational? Some would immediately shout NO. Though obviously there are individuals that long for martyrdom, does anyone really believe that the leadership of Iran longs for a national suicide the presumed outcome of any nuclear adventurism at the hands of the Israeli nuclear arsenal?

Does Israeli leadership again assume like with their prior facility bombings that preemptive military action is preferred to following the MAD approach where both sides face the threat of annihilation? Based on current belligerent rhetoric we could answer YES. If Israel attempts to destroy the nuclear operations of Iran, they must admit that this is a calculated risk----there is no guarantee for success. Following such a bombing can anyone really think that there will be no retaliation? Would Israel simply label any response as “terrorism” ignoring its own provocation? Given the ambiguous moral standing of Israel, would its leaders dare to launch a nuclear strike against a nonnuclear nation? I seriously hope not. The nuclear threat itself is the key to deterring a major strike by Israel’s neighbors and maintaining this balance.

How would such events impact us? At what point does the USA get dragged into such a situation kicking and screaming with the loss of substantial life and treasure? I have not heard anyone in our government listing specifics about this scenario.

Given the actual history of the 20th century can the US perceive itself to function as a legitimate moral umpire having leveled two cites in Japan with atomic bombs? “Do as I say, not as I do” surely does not evoke a mood of trust.