Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ah, the South

Ginny got the folks at Wal-Mart to put in a new watch battery. After they installed it, they gave her the square-inch “box” and told her to pay for it up front. No one in Philadelphia would be naive enough to do that.

I’m virtual freelance editing on the second floor of the Enterprise Public Library and start downstairs for a break. An early-teenage black girl says, “Sir? Sir?” and asks me to point her to the shelf that has the book she’s looking for. I do my best and leave. When I come back up, I see her about to go downstairs and ask, “Did you find it?” With a tone of voice that lets me know the conversation has already gone on longer than she’d like, she says, “Yes, sir.” Not “Yeah.” “Sir.”

Ginny and I took a long walk around Nate and Courtney’s neighborhood. I went barefoot and wasn’t cold.

I could live down here.

On the Battlefield against Leviathan, Part 2: The Poison Bible

Before the business part of the meeting described in the last post began, Abington swore in three new police officers. The initiates had invited their parents, siblings, and friends to attend, and most of the people in the room, including many of the Libertarians, considered this the beginning of an era with tremendous potential for good.

After opening remarks by the president of the board of commissioners, a kindly-looking judge stepped to the lectern to administer the oath of office. He greeted everyone, called the new officers and their parents to the lectern, and pulled out a somewhat worn Bible.

“Who would like to hold the Bible?” he asked.

All nine of those standing with him took a step back. No one wanted to hold the Bible. The judge asked again, saying that even one of the guys being sworn in could hold it. No takers.

I couldn’t get my mind around it: these guys were going to swear an oath on a book they were obviously repulsed by. So why was the Bible there at all? Was the God of the Bible honored that it was there, being used as some sort of talisman?

After about a minute, someone from the audience volunteered to hold the Bible. And the three officers swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Abington Township.

Many of the Libertarian atheists there saw the irony of people swearing on a book they don’t believe or even like to uphold the very Constitution they have to disobey if they are to keep their jobs. What scares me is that so many Christians don’t.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Iraqi Freedom

One of my correspondents has said that from what she's heard, the Iraqis appreciate the freedom that the US military is "providing" them. If that's so, they have an interesting value system.

Let me put myself in the position that dozens, if not thousands, of Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakis are in today. Let's say my son and infant grandchildren have just become mangled corpses and my daughter-in-law a half-blind paraplegic because the Chinese have dropped a bomb on "suspected insurgents" in their efforts to liberate us from a government they feel threatens them. I find myself face-to-face with Commander Li, who, it turns out, is a Christian. With tears of gratitude in my eyes, I say, "Commander, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Even though our family has suffered horribly from this bomb, it's worth it to me because ___."

What could possibly go in that blank? How bad could things be beforehand, or what good thing could come as a result, that I would say it was worth losing my son and grandchildren to get it? Isn't it more likely that whatever benefits accrued from the status post facto would be a thin silver lining around a huge black cloud?

It's one thing for me to be willing to die for a cause. It's something else entirely for someone who has no choice in the matter to be killed. Yet this is the situation our government has forced on millions of people in three nations.

Or let's look at a parallel from a neutral country.

All radio stations in Papua New Guinea are owned by the government and are therefore tax supported. The station in the province we worked in played sex rock six-and-a-half days a week and gospel music on Sunday mornings. Now my Christian friends seemed to think that the gospel music (and news and other feature shows) justified the existence of the station: the sex rock was something of a blemish, but all in all the taxman was justified before God in taking the fruits of Christian taxpayers' labor to support it.

I thought that the tax support alone made the station's existence immoral, that the sex rock was proof of its immorality, and that the gospel music was therefore tainted. The cherry on my sundae was that I didn't know of any non-Christians who listened to the gospel music, let alone were converted by it; they were more likely to mock it or simply turn it off.

Now my parallel to the war: Does the gratitude of those who have benefited from the war outweigh and sanctify the suffering of those who oppose it? Or does the suffering of the innocent show the immorality of the war and taint the benefits enjoyed by its cheerleaders?

We shall soon have the opportunity to decide for ourselves, when Uncle Sam provides us the same freedom we have been providing the Iraqis: "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Lk 6:38). We saw that freedom at work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when residents were forced out of their homes, had their weapons confiscated, were prohibited from leaving the city, and were imprisoned in the Superdome. And now the Army has announced that the first of what will likely be many units dedicated to providing us freedom in like situations in the future has been deployed in the US.

What goes around comes around.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On the Battlefield against Leviathan, Part 1: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

A few weeks ago an e-mail from some friends in the Libertarian Party informed me that the commissioners in the nearby township of Abington had voted to take a storefront belonging to an eighty-year-old woman through eminent domain. Since eminent domain is by definition the politically powerful doing as they please with the less powerful, I was duly concerned, even though this particular case was not one I would have chosen: the widow has more money than I’ll ever see, and the storefront is an eyesore. But, as H. L. Mencken said, “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels,” and Moses said, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly,” so I decided to join the protest at the next commission meeting.

I figured I knew what to expect, having been to a meeting of the Lansdale Borough Council. That was a step up from business casual, so I wasn’t concerned when I arrived business informal and saw many of the protesters in jeans, t-shirts, and sweatshirts. One was dressed like this fellow, complete with mask and sign. I thought some of the signs were over the top—”Commissioner X [who voted for the taking] stinks!” and “Thieves SUCK“ being my least favorites (I settled for “Eminent Domain Is Theft”)—but I was a johnny-come-lately, so I didn’t say anything.

After we’d stood outside for an hour showing our signs to the dozen or so people who walked past to go inside, we went into the meeting. That was where I first realized we were in trouble. This place was business formal: carpeted, padded chairs in the gallery, the commissioners and township staff in well-into-three-digits suits, and cameras and screens all around to record the proceedings and show exhibits. We looked out of place, to say the least, in our scruffies. Undaunted, however, as the attendance roll was called, we duly booed those commissioners who had voted for the taking and cheered those who hadn’t.

The business part of the meeting went by quite quickly. Every agendum was read out in a sentence or two by one of the commissioners, seconded immediately, and passed unanimously after the president asked if the commissioners, township staff, or audience had any comments, which usually no one did. Then I got my second lesson. One of the commissioners (who had voted against the taking) took time out to explain that the issues are discussed in detail in committee beforehand, implying that the actual vote is essentially a formality. So, it would seem, if we’re to change any minds on the issues, we need to get to the legislators at the discussion stage.

I had hoped before I went that I would not suffer the same transformation when I got into the meeting room that Charles Colson wrote about somewhere—when he was on President Nixon’s staff, he loved watching people who had come to read the president the riot act turn into pussycats when they actually walked into the Oval Office and were overwhelmed by the trappings of power that pervade the room—but that’s exactly what happened. One person who had not been with us gave an incoherent rant that I think was against the taking, and a couple of others got up and flailed. At that point, I just flat chickened out, and the meeting was over before I could compose myself.

But that’s probably just as well. A couple of people had gotten up during the proceedings and thanked the commissioners for their votes for the taking, specifically mentioning the jeers and hisses that we had subjected them to that evening. And after the meeting, none of the commissioners, not even those who had voted against the taking, greeted us. We changed no minds, unless some of those who voted against the taking were now wishing they’d voted for it.

The third lesson came after the meeting, when my ride home stopped off at a nearby bar to join the other Libertarians for consolation and encouragement. The first people I saw when I walked in were one of the guys who had chastised us at the meeting and a couple who had clapped enthusiastically when he had finished. As I was wondering if they’d be offended if I asked if I could join them and thinking it wouldn’t matter anyway because they were right in front of the DJ, who was doing his best to deafen everyone, the Libs got the bar staff to open a conference room so we could hear ourselves talk and invited the trio to join us. They did join, and the Libs kept their beer glasses full and plied them with onion rings and crab fries; we all had a truly enjoyable time. Our erstwhile chastiser was a nonstop talker, so the Libs sat around him and tossed him questions like a dolphin trainer tosses fish. I don’t know that we got him to see the evil of eminent domain, even after all the times he realized he’d talked himself into corners, but when we finally quit at 1 am, I don’t think he and his friends thought still thought we were unprincipled riffraff.

So, lesson three: we can make more friends for liberty with beer than by 1960s-style demonstrating.

It’s frustrating that well-educated people in nice clothes can commit atrocities and then firm up their support base by looking down their noses at those who violate protocol at their meetings, and it feels great to be able to express our disgust at those atrocities. And evil is still evil even if those who commit it are convinced that they are doing good. But such people are rarely convinced to change their ways when others accuse them of evil, no matter how faultlessly logical the argument, and if our goal is to get them to change their ways, we can’t just throw their evil in their faces and expect them to repent.

The way to a person’s brain is through the heart. (I know I have made my worst mistakes by choosing to believe a pack of lies that I wanted to be true.) I think the Abington commissioners, and thousands like them, love the system and therefore believe it to be good. Before we can get them to change their minds, we need to get them to love those who suffer because of that system. We can’t do that with signs and jeers.

Maybe conflict resolution à la Matthew 18 (mutatis mutandis) can help us here: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” That is, we keep things on a private, personal level as much as possible; once it gets to the power politics stage, the battle is already lost.

All legislation in Abington, and I presume elsewhere, is “advertised” months in advance. That is the time to meet the legislators privately and try to reason with them. Even harder to do, but possibly more effective, would be to meet and befriend them before offensive legislation is even proposed. To put it crassly, we need to learn how to schmooze and lobby. It’s not as much fun as hurling insults, but it sounds more like how Jesus dealt with the tax collectors and prostitutes of his day.

If I’m anywhere close to the truth, we have a lot of crow to eat and a lot of work ahead of us.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Up for Assignment (Update)

This original post was tactless and hurt people who expected better from me, so I am taking it and the subsequent comments down.

I have been asked specifically to address three issues in this retraction and will do so in what follows.

Two things before I start:

I gave the false impression that my son’s possible assignment to Korea involved no work or risk. This is not true. While we don’t hear much in the media about the US military death rate in Korea, it is surprisingly high, and any time a military aircraft takes off, there’s reason to believe it will be shot at. My son was on his first deployment to Iraq when his first child was born and when she learned to walk, and he could have been shot at. I should have acknowledged this considerable sacrifice and risk.

More importantly, he does what he does because he loves his family and others. As one whose life has never been in danger for more than a couple of seconds, and that as often as not because of my own stupidity, I have to take my hat off to anyone, friend or foe, who willingly puts their lives at risk. My son fits that category. And while my post used him as an example, my quarrel is not ultimately with him but with the rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world (Ep 6:12). And indeed, one of life’s cruelest ironies is that those who sincerely desire to fight those beasts often find out too late they are allied with them; I could be one of those people.

First is the issue of soldiers shooting their own family members on order from their superiors. Do I believe my own son would shoot me if ordered to? As I said at the top of the original article, when I had no intention of revealing who the subject of the post was, he is a man who loves his family. I am a member of that family, and he has said that he loves me. So far so good.

But one of the themes running through the exchange was that a belief in the justice of politics causes good people to do horrible things. Chuck Colson was once accused of saying that he would run over (or some similar verb) his grandmother to serve Richard Nixon. In one of his books he says that he doesn't remember saying that, but yes, that was a reasonable assessment of his attitude at the time. Totalitarian societies, which ours is becoming, have always enlisted children as snitches against their parents, who then become prisoners and often corpses. And even though I like to think I don't believe in politics, I've done horrible things myself. (For all I know, turning against the war in Iraq, which I initially somewhat supported, is one of those horrible things, and I certainly have no reason to be proud of the way I conducted this post.)

But again, my son is also his mother's son, and not only has she proven herself fiercely protective of me as a person, he has shown himself willing to forgive many shortcomings in my fathering. So, with a nod to the caveat in the previous paragraph that was heavy on my mind and heart when I wrote the original post, I would say that my son would not shoot me, and I was wrong to imply that he would.

I also gave the impression that I consider all military people robots. Such was not my intention. To make quite the opposite point I said, "Those guards at Auschwitz probably played piano, painted in oils, wrote their grandmothers, gave flowers to their girlfriends, and did many things that we could consider commendable. We know they had Bible studies at their Hitler Youth camps and that the SS gave money to Christian missions." That is, military people are just like the rest of us. That was why my next sentence was, "What went wrong?" I also said to a commenter, whom I know to be the wife, sister, and foster mother of soldiers, "I rage at those who have deceived your loved ones, not at those you love." Being deceived is not the same as being a robot, as I, who either was or am currently deceived on the question of the Iraq war, can attest.

This leads into the third issue I was asked to address: soldiers who have gone out of their way to help local people. The only specific examples I have at hand come from the Bible. One was the Roman centurion whose servant was sick; when the Jewish leaders came to Jesus, they said that he should heal the servant because the centurion "loves our nation and built our synagogue" (Lk 7:3-5). Cornelius, similarly, "and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly." In fact, it was because his "prayers and gifts to the poor had come up as a memorial offering before God" that Peter was sent to him (Ac 10:2-4).

These were an armed agent of an empire that Daniel described as an inhuman beast with "large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left" (Dn 7:7). The Jews hated the Romans so much that, I am told, Rome had more trouble with Judea than with any other province, and one rebellion was so troublesome that the Romans ran out of wood to make crosses on which to kill the insurgents.

Yet God's holy Word says that two commanding officers were noteworthy for their love for their subjects. In fact, it is about the anonymous centurion that Jesus spoke his highest praise: "I have not found such great faith even in Israel" (Lk 7:9).

Are US soldiers any different? Of course not. While it is true that you can look on YouTube at atrocious behavior by US soldiers (some posted by those proud of it), you can also find videos of US soldiers doing their best to help the locals. You can read newspaper and magazine accounts of people who have risked and even lost their lives sincerely trying to help Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis. I don't think these stories are made up. Which group of soldiers is more typical? I don't know and probably never will. But I apologize for lumping the two groups together and will do my best not to do so in the future.

To summarize, my intention was not to hold any individual up to ridicule. I am grieved beyond words at the world my children will spend their adulthood in and at my own contributions to the way things are. I am doing my best to acknowledge my own sinfulness and give credit to those who disagree with me where it is due, but this time I simply got it wrong.