Monday, June 30, 2014

Iraq - one possible map


Here's one possible map of what a portioned Iraq (and Syria) might look like (from the Gulf2000 Project):

 
The tripartite division reflects shifting alliances that more closely align with existing ethnic and religious realities. Post-invasion Iraq has more segregation but perhaps no harder feelings between groups than it did under Saddam's rule. People who doubt the latter assessment will do well to remember the harsh, ongoing repression of Shiites by Saddam's regime that culminated in a brutally squashed rebellion following the first Gulf War.

Sending a few advisers will not accomplish goals that the US could not achieve in ten years of occupation. Similarly, giving a relatively small amount of aid to Syrian rebels ($500 million) seems unlikely to shift the balance of power against Assad. Instead, both efforts will most probably end up wasting US tax dollars and perhaps US lives.
 
General Colin Powell was wrong when he told President Bush that if we break a country, then we have a responsibility to fix it. Powell's comment, which I appreciate ethically, incorrectly presumes that the US can fix any problem it creates. What has happened in Iraq is a poignant warning against the dangers of hubris. A nation can create problems, especially abroad, that it cannot solve.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Iraq's future and what it means for the US


The recent capture of Mosul and other northern cities by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the most recent indicator that Iraq is a dysfunctional state.

At the time of the US invasion in 2003, I predicted one of two outcomes: another dictator would replace Saddam Hussein or Iraq would split into three separate states comprised, respectively of Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. The inability of Iraq's million strong military and uniformed police forces to defeat ISIS's seven to fifteen thousand fighters underscores that the billions of dollars and thousands of lives that the US invested in training those forces was largely wasted.

In much of Iraq, loyalty to tribe, clan, ethnicity, and religion trumps national identity. The relative calm that the US surge produced in 2007-2008 resulted from the US buying the cooperation of competing factions rather than any fundamental enduring change to Iraq's culture. Iraq's only hope of defeating ISIS depended upon reducing its citizens' conflicting loyalties of its citizens and create a broadly held, firm sense of national will and identity. Positive assessments of what the US achieved during its decade long occupation of Iraq reflect the need of people on the ground and those who sent and funded the mission to believe that their efforts were not in vain. However, events in Iraq following the US withdrawal are the real measure of what US efforts achieved. By that standard, the occupation was a failure.

National boundaries in the Middle East and much of Africa are a legacy of colonialism. European nations, for example, drew the boundaries of Middle Eastern nations following the WWI defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Those boundaries, not surprisingly, reflect the concerns and desires of the European nations that drew the boundaries and not the ethnic, religious, or political realities of the Middle East. Illustratively, significant Kurdish populations live in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Azerbaijan. When colonial empires collapsed and former territories received their independence, the boundaries remained as the Europeans had drawn them with little effort to accommodate demographic and political realities. Those boundaries have largely endured because of dictators ruled through force, ruthlessly imposing their will or restless populations such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Bashar al-Assad and his father in Syria, and leaders including Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak in Egypt.

As a military chaplain, I spent much of my time counseling individuals. For me, the most frustrating cases involved individuals who could, if they had chosen, changed their situation without much difficulty or effort. However, these persons frequently preferred to live with the status-quo than to make the requisite effort and to endure the pain of adjusting to a new normal.

Sadly, the same holds for nations: we can point the way, but not coerce change. In the words of the familiar adage, one can lead a horse to water but not force it to drink.

One essential pre-condition of democracy is that a sufficient percent of a people must want democracy badly enough to pay the cost of fighting to establish and then to preserve that democracy. The Arab Spring signaled that across the Middle East, people want to live in a democracy. Time will show whether the Arab Spring is part of the birth pains of new democracies or, as seems more likely (e.g., in Libya and the opposition to Assad), indicative of growing desire for democracy that lacks the strength and momentum to establishing democracy will require. If the latter, then the Arab Spring will end in the emergence of a new set of dictatorial regimes, some of which will veil their repressive policies in Islamist rhetoric. The US, a much-hated nation, cannot unilaterally force the birth of democratic regimes, a lesson that recent failures in nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan should have reinforced.

The collapse of Iraq will adversely impact the world's oil supply and jeopardize the perilous stability in other Middle Eastern nations including Saudi Arabia. This is likely to send the price of oil higher, tighten supplies in global petroleum markets, and put the already slow economic recoveries in Europe, the US, and elsewhere at risk. None of those consequences is attractive. However, the only alternative appears to be once again taking military action in the Middle East, a step that will alienate more Arabs and Muslims, add fuel to Islamist rhetoric and forces, and further destabilize that volatile region. Sometimes the best part of wisdom is to recognize the limits of what one can do and to resist the temptation to act in the absence of constructive options.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Dealing with conflict


Conflict is inevitable, whether within a family unit, social groups and institutions, and even the church. The question is not whether you will experience conflict but how you will deal with the conflict that you experience.

In this morning's gospel reading (Matthew 10:24-39) Jesus declares conflict to be inevitable. He advises his disciples—us, in other words—to emulate him and the ways in which he dealt with conflict. The gospel underscores three principles.

The rest of my sermon is available here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Political correctness


When I was in high school in the late 1960s and college in the early 1970s, I thought that US laws banning or discriminating against the Communist party were hypocritical.

On the one hand, I had read enough of Karl Marx's writings and other communist authors to recognize that although some communist ideals were admirable, Marx' prescription for achieving those ideals through the dictatorship of the proletariat was severely flawed. Studying economics, religion, and psychology in college confirmed that assessment, as did an even cursory and second-hand knowledge of life in the Soviet Union, China, and other communist countries.

On the other hand, the US Constitution promises freedom of the press, freedom to gather with people of one's own choosing, and implicitly recognized the right to one's own thoughts. Laws banning or discriminating against the Communist party seemed incompatible with those Constitutional rights and unnecessary, given the problems inherent in Marxism. I was confident that the vast majority of Americans would firmly reject Communism, no matter how attractive they found some of its rhetorical flourishes or promises.

Redbaiting and hating achieved its high water mark through the incendiary and bigoted bombast of Joseph McCarthy, a Republic Senator from Wisconsin. Sadly, most politicians, including President Eisenhower, lacked the moral courage to challenge McCarthy's denunciation of Americans as Communists frequently without his having substantial evidence to justify those claims. Thankfully, a couple of key Supreme Court decisions combined with shifting public opinion against the excesses led to McCarthy's downfall. The Communist Party retains, some seven decades later, its unpopularity in this nation. Both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union's demise incontrovertibly underscore the ideological and political bankruptcy of Communism.

A recent announcement that my alma mater, Bowdoin College, has terminated recognition of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship (BCF) deeply disappointed me.

I do not support the BCF nor do I agree with many of its doctrinal positions. The BCF is an evangelical Christian group that began after I graduated from Bowdoin and is affiliated with Inter-Varsity. Among my disagreements with the BCF are my strong support for same-sex relationships and my affirmation that Christianity is one of many valid, vital spiritual paths.

However, ending official recognition of the BCF, which will prevent the BCF from being an official part of campus life and having access to campus facilities, is hypocritical. Bowdoin promotes itself as a bastion of liberal education. Liberal education should connote space in which to explore ideas, even those that many regard as wrong or silly.

In my long service as a Navy chaplain, I staunchly defended the right of people from widely divergent faith traditions to gather in spite of opposition from conservative Christian elements and sometimes from the chain of command. Never once did I, or any command with which I served, find that protecting religious freedom diminished unit morale or mission effectiveness. Fears of those adverse consequences were always overblown. Sailors and Marines generally had too much good sense to succumb to the blandishments and enticements of even the most disliked religious groups.

Similarly, I have found that the best antidote to allegedly Christian but in fact silly versions of Christianity—whether the prosperity gospel of TV evangelists like TD Jakes or narrow-minded fundamentalism of groups like Inter-Varsity—consists of lovingly but persistently offering an alternative Christian vision. Persons receptive to weighing the merits of their ideas and values willingly engage in genuine dialogue, regardless of their current beliefs. Other persons must test alternative ideas and values for themselves by subscribing, at least temporarily, to those ideas and values, a process that is a normal part of human maturation. Most people eventually develop a set of ideas and values that enable the person to function as a reasonably healthy and productive member of their community.

When a community has a steadily increasing number of young adults who fail to develop the ideas and values requisite for a reasonably healthy and productive lifestyle, then the community's elders and larger society should become alarmed. The community is rapidly becoming dysfunctional and alienated, signs of social disintegration. In the US, those signs of social disintegration are evident in some segregated inner city neighborhoods in which unemployment, out of wedlock births, single parents raising children, and multi-generational dependence upon welfare are all dramatically increasing. The signs of social disintegration, including high rates of alcoholism, have also been evident on Native American reservations for generations.

Bowdoin College (and most other bastions of political correctness!) does not exhibit any of those warning signs. Bowdoin is an academically elite institution that draws the majority of its student body from America's privileged class. The cost of enforcing political correctness by banishing groups whose ideology one finds offensive, whether because of their religious fundamentalism or political extremism, is therefore hypocritical and self-defeating. Exposing students to the BCF and its woefully inadequate and unjust interpretation of Christianity denies Bowdoin students a valuable opportunity to test the waters, to explore different ideas, and to appreciate more fully why liberalism rightly endorses diversity and pluralism, confident that most people will reject narrow-minded prejudice in favor of respect for the dignity and worth of all.

For those not persuaded by my confidence in people, that confidence is the basic premise of democratic governance: most people will generally choose wisely.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Musings about the Trinity


June 15 was Trinity Sunday. Most Christians, on those rare occasions when they think about the Trinity, find it completely incomprehensible. What does it mean to speak of one God in three persons?

For a different approach to the Trinity, read the sermon I preached on the subject that explores specific ways in which Trinitarian thinking can shape a Christian's ethical and spiritual practices.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

When government outperforms private enterprise


Many people, particularly many Americans, wrongly believe that private enterprise is always more efficient and less expensive than government. Here are two examples of where government, even with its inefficiencies, can outperform private enterprise.

First, some activities are natural monopolies. Relying upon government avoids the excess profits that monopolies (and even oligopolies, which are markets dominated by just a handful of suppliers) seek to extract. Providing cellphone and broadband internet access are presently examples of natural monopolies. A friend with whom I discussed this issue told me about a friend of his who had better cellphone and broadband access in Afghanistan's Swat valley than in Maryland and Virginia. If that anecdotal evidence is insufficient to change your thinking (and doubting the persuasiveness of anecdotal evidence is always a good idea), then carefully examine this table compiled using OECD data:

BROADBAND SPEED
BROADBAND PRICES
 
 
Nation
Median advertised download speed in thousands of megabits per second, Sept. 2012
 
 
Nation
Lowest subscription prices in each country, in dollars per megabit per second of advertised speed, Sept. 2012.
South Korea
75.0
Greece
$1.25
Netherlands
61.4
Turkey
1.12
Denmark
40.0
Spain
.74
Britain
35.8
Italy
.64
Sweden
30.7
Ireland
.61
Spain
30.7
Austria
.56
Portugal
30.7
United States
.53
France
30.7
Switzerland
.47
Canada
30.7
Portugal
.46
Greece
24.6
Germany
.40
Australia
24.6
Czech Rep.
.40
Czech Rep.
23.0
Britain
.39
Italy
20.5
Canada
.39
Austria
20.5
Denmark
.36
Australia
Japan
19.5
.34
United States
16.9
France
.23
Germany
16.0
South Korea
.22
Finland
15.4
Finland
.22
Sweden
Turkey
10.2
.11
Switzerland
10.0
Netherlands
.08
Ireland
8.2
Japan
.04

Clearly, the US, the world leader in developing the internet and broadband technology, has failed in making that technology readily and affordably available.

Second, research indicates that in 2011 Medicare and Medicaid fraud cost US taxpayers something between $82 and $272 billion dollars. The problem is not government inefficiency or ineptitude but an unnecessarily expensive and convoluted healthcare system that invites fraud. As bank robber Willie Sutton replied when asked why he robbed banks, "That's where the money is." $272 billion is 10% of US spending on healthcare and 1.7% of US GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

The solution recommended by the editors of The Economist, which is not exactly a left-wing publication? Streamline healthcare delivery by establishing a national healthcare system. ("That’s where the money is," The Economist, May 31, 2014) Healthcare is a natural monopoly because few consumers have the knowledge to make intelligent choices about providers and treatments; furthermore, consumers often seek healthcare in times of crises, when time is critical, and trust providers to do what is right. Both of those factors keep consumers from making the type of informed choices upon which free markets depend for effective functioning. Therefore, healthcare providers often become de-facto monopolists or oligopolists, charging exorbitant rates in the absence of meaningful competition.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Professional revolutionaries in Jesus' service


Recently, I read Edward Dreyer's history of wars in China during the first half of the twentieth century, China at War: 1901-1949 (London: Longman, 1995). Unless you have a particular interest in, and background knowledge of, those wars I do not recommend that you make the effort to read this specialist volume. What drew my attention to the book was that my father had served in the U.S. Navy in China during WWII, assigned as the personnel officer of a then highly secret unit—the Sino American Cooperative Organization. That unit received only one oblique reference, and then by another name that I recognized only because I was familiar with unit's the history.

One of Dreyer's paragraphs, unrelated to WWII, did catch my attention. In the late 1920s,

Sun Yat-sen had independently evolved many of the features of Leninist party organization (a small corps of professional revolutionaries supported by a larger body of dues-paying members, all obeying the party leader through a cellular organization). Communism used the same structure to serve an entirely different theory of history—whose pretensions to scientific status were taken more seriously than they would be today—according to which a Chinese Communist Party might be considered premature. (pp. 120-121)

Sun Yat-sen was the driving force behind a movement to supplant the last Chinese imperial dynasty with a democratic republic. His model was the United States; he drew particular inspiration from the US Constitution. The Chinese republic quickly floundered, leading to the Nationalist movement under Chiang Kai-shek's leadership that, following WWII, unsuccessfully competed for dominance with the Communists, led by Mao, in China.

What struck me about Dreyer's paragraph was that both sides in the future conflict initially relied upon the same organizational strategy to establish themselves: "a small corps of professional revolutionaries supported by a larger body of dues-paying members."

That resembles, although expressed in secular terms, the organizational pattern of the Christian Church. We don't have dues paying members, but we do have members who contribute tithes and offerings. Although individuals determine how much to give (unlike organizational dues and unlike the thankfully repudiated pew rent system of previous centuries), a large number of donors supports a small cadre of professional revolutionaries (aka the clergy).

I like the image of the clergy as professional revolutionaries. Theoretically, Christianity is a revolutionary endeavor, intended to reorient a community and people radically toward the living God by following the Jesus path. The term professional revolutionary avoids baggage laden biblical terms such as evangelist and missionary while preserving the underlying concept. Of course, many people find the term revolutionary even more troubling, because that term suggests that Christianity initiates radical change. Tellingly, contemporary biblical scholars attribute Jesus' death to the Romans regarding him as a revolutionary, providing an appropriate role model for clergy ordained in his service.

The Constantinian settlement that led to the establishment of the Church as the official religion of the Roman Empire brought many advantages. Unfortunately, one significant disadvantage that resulted from establishment is that the clergy ceased to be professional revolutionaries and instead became professional guardians of the status quo. No longer did most clergy believe that they needed to change the world and people radically; after all, the Christian world was supposedly just that, Christian.

Yet there is a dramatic and substantive dissonance between the gospel and the world, e.g., the practice of radical love is exceptionally rare. Perhaps William Stringfellow and others correctly characterize today's Church as existing in a period of Babylonian captivity. Alternatively, but with a wry sense of humor, we Anglicans might appropriately refer to the Church's present situation as a Victorian captivity.

Our clergy too often fill a role, and those who sit in the pews too often expect their clergy to fill a role, more akin to that of chaplain or pastor (i.e., caring for the people of God, especially by maintaining the status quo). This is a legacy of establishment, when people thought Christendom was synonymous with civil society. Consequently, many clergy no longer function in the more challenging role, especially in this era of postmodern skepticism, of missionary (i.e., a professionally revolutionary who brings the life-altering message of Jesus to broken, hurting people).

In a prior Ethical Musings' post, The Church does not exist to support the clergy, I argued that a great many Episcopal congregations do not need full-time clergy because of the congregation's small numbers. In other Ethical Musings' posts (e.g., Reversing the numerical decline of the Episcopal Church), I have argued that many of our small congregations are in the wrong locations, such as areas of declining population.

What might happen if we Episcopalians re-conceptualized the role of our parish clergy from pastor/chaplain to professional revolutionary? What might happen if our clergy began to think of themselves as professional revolutionaries and to act accordingly? What would happen if clergy spent 90% of their time with the unchurched and 10% of their time with the church people whose giving pays their stipend AND if the church expected (or even demanded) this pattern of ministry? In short, perhaps it's time that we took our commitment to emulate Jesus more seriously, recognizing that Christendom—if it ever existed—is long gone.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Religious experience is essential for religious belief


Religious experience constitutes the only reasonable basis for religious belief. Apart from personal religious experience, or trust in a second-hand religious experience (i.e., another person's religious experience), religious belief—of any type or form—seems unreasonable.

Karl Barth, a leading twentieth century theologian, argued that without the Bible no one could know that God truly existed, much less enter into relationship with God. The Bible is obviously a human book. Apart from personal religious experience, such as hearing God speak or God guiding a biblical author to speak or write certain words or ideas, the Bible could not connect anyone with God. In other words, Barth maintained that the basis of Christian belief is second-hand religious experience: contemporary Christians trusting the experience of biblical authors and editors to describe God and God's message for humanity accurately.

Although Barth exemplifies dependence upon second-hand religious belief, he is far from alone in holding that position. Great swaths of the Christian tradition agree with him.

Dependence upon second-hand religious experience begs two important questions:

  1. Why did people once, but no longer, directly experience God?
  2. Which, of all the numerous allegedly second-hand experiences of God, whether from one's own religious tradition or another tradition such as Buddhism, second-hand religious experiences are reliable? Why trust those experiences and distrust other ones?

At the opposite end of a spectrum of thinking about religious experience lies atheism, which maintains that whatever religious experience may be, it is not an experience of the divine because God does not exist. Since God does not exist, genuine experience of the holy or the ultimate is manifestly impossible.

The great difficulty with atheism is that proving God's non-existence is impossible because nobody can prove the non-existence of anything. Nobody can be every place (remember how gigantic the cosmos is), experience every aspect of all that exists (think of the present impossibility of directly apprehending a quark or other sub-atomic particle, too small to observe directly so known only by their effect).

Between those two extremes lies a vast assortment of types of experience that may suggest or represent a personal encounter with a force (or something) that humans variously call God, Spirit, the ultimate, etc. William James in his classic study, The Varieties of Religious Experience, contended that science should take those experiences seriously. The experiences are too pervasive and too powerful in their positive transformative effects on humans to ignore. James denied that he believed in God, yet saw in religious experience evidence of something that exists but is not amenable directly to scientific observation or study.

Nicholas Lash, Emeritus Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, in his book Easter in Ordinary, commented about James' ideas:

In religion, as elsewhere, genius held an inordinate fascination for James, who was not much interested in more humdrum personalities. The case studies, in Varieties, are not drawn from the ranks of 'your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit. It would us little to study this second-hand religious life. We must make search rather for the original experiences which were the patter-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct. These experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever.' Some like it hot, and James was much more interested in those 'intenser experiences' that occur in 'the hot place in a man's consciousness … the habitual center of his personal energy,' and in the type of person who operates from this center at fever pitch, than he was in 'the experiences of tamer minds, so cool and reasonable that we are tempted to call them philosophical rather than religious.' (p. 45, quoting James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 15, 44, 162, 44.)

Religious experience may take the form of an interior journey that leads one ever deeper, until one experiences what some described as the ground of being (Tillich) and others characterize as groundlessness (Buddhism). Alternatively, one may journey outwards, experiencing the unity nature of all that exists (e.g., Eckhart, Lao Tzu, or Sankara) or the in the unity of one with another (Buber's I-Thou relationship). In addition to experiencing the unitive nature, either through an interior or exterior journey, other characteristics of religious experience are that the experience is noetic, ineffable, transient, and liberating. These qualities of religious experience cut cross religious traditions, as evidenced by the citation in this paragraph's first two sentences of six different religious traditions.

Seeking personal religious experience also offers a more promising approach to scriptural interpretation than does Barth's reliance upon second-hand experience. We believe Scripture inspired not because God dictated or guided its writing but because readers have traditionally experienced scripture as a window through which the light of God shines, illuminating the spiritual path. Authors of the Bible were human, exactly as we are. God acted then, in their lives, as God acts today, in our lives. This view of Scripture accommodates religious pluralism better than other perspectives on the Bible's inspiration do. Also, this view better accords with our understanding of how God acts in the world today, luring or nudging, rather than controlling or intervening in spectacular ways.

If you hold religious beliefs, what is the source of those beliefs? Is it your own personal religious experience or is it second-hand? In either case, why do you trust the experience?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Happenings in the Church of England


Two items in the Church Times, a British newspaper that focuses on the Church of England, recently caught my attention.

The first was an article by Madeline Davies, Covenant: ‘We’ll turn our key if you turn yours’, posted May 23, 2014. The article describes the current stalemate in progress toward the reunion of the Church of England and the British Methodists.

The second article was by Paul Wilkinson, Green light for Leicester burial for Richard III, also posted on May 23. The Church of England's Leicester cathedral has successfully defeated a legal challenge by a handful of Richard's descendants who wanted to bury his remains in York, the seat of his power. The Leicester cathedral will now spend £1 million on his re-interment.

Both stories illustrate reasons why organized religion is losing ground to the spiritual but not religious. British Methodists split from the Church of England in the decades following John Wesley's death in 1791. They now number just over a quarter of million, too small a group to wield much influence in Great Britain. Meanwhile, the Church of England is experiencing struggles similar to those of its American cousin, the Episcopal Church: declining attendance, maldistributed church buildings and parishes, and grossly inadequate finances. The issues that keep the Anglicans and Methodists apart are unimportant to virtually all outsiders, e.g., issues of ecclesial organization that effect how church people wield power. In the face of growing secularism, Christian unity—especially unity that honors diversity—offers a stronger, more attractive witness than stubbornly insisting on having one's own way over issues about which few people care.

Concomitantly, spending £1 million to rebury a long-dead king—regardless of his historical importance—seems irrelevant to the mission of bringing God's love to a broken, hurting world. Let the United Kingdom pay to rebury Richard, if there is the political will to do so. Let the Church spend its money to feed the hungry, both spiritually and physically. When the Church shifts its focus away from its core mission, then the skeptics shout about our hypocrisy and the interested but unaffiliated find spiritual but not religious more appealing.