Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On Judging Other Nations

Andy's comment on the previous post: "Is it fair for God to use a nation like Babylon to punish other nations, then punish Babylon for doing exactly what God directed them to do?"

My cynical answer is, if God says it's fair, it's fair. It's God's universe and he makes the rules. He can make them, and he can break them.

I can even back the first two sentences up with Scripture: All have sinned and the wages of sin is death. We deserve to die and go to hell, and anything better than that is God's grace to the undeserving.

I don't think Andy claims that God appeared to Nebuchadnezzar and told him to invade Judah; rather, through that relationship between God's total sovereignty and man's total free will and responsibility—a relationship that believers consider beyond human comprehension and unbelievers consider simply irrational and thus impossible—God worked his sovereign will through Nebuchadnezzar's will to bring judgment on Judah. So how can God condemn Babylon for doing what he wanted them to do?

I don't know. Paul addresses the question and Job deals with it through the bulk of his book, and the answer is the same both times: "You didn't make the universe, you don't know how it works, and you can't do anything about it, so shut up" (Job 38–41; Ro 9).

I do think we need to question our assumption that God is using the US to judge other nations' wickedness. He never called Israel to judge the wickedness of its neighbors. Ammon was clearly the aggressor in 1 Samuel 12; other than that, I can't think of any time Israel's military went outside its borders. (Philistia was within the borders God described to Joshua.) The closest they got to a preemptive strike against potential aggressors was Jonah's mission to Nineveh, and need I point out that that was not a government operation?

As Andy mentions, Uncle Sam's reason for invading Iraq and Afgbhanistan was imperialist theft. That Uncle Sam is God's agent of judgment against those nations is a reasonable proposition, But the fate of Babylon, an imperialist power that was also God's agent of judgment, against Judah, should give us pause: do we want to suffer the same fate? If not, is there anything we can do about it? What privilege is it to be used as God's agent of judgment if God's just going to punish me for it? I wouldn't mind being God's agent of judgment against pretty girls who dress provocatively, but I can't imagine that a thousand years from now I'd be glad I did so. Somewhere in this deceitful, wicked heart I wouldn't even want to live in a universe in which I would be.

If my church is typical, US Christians spend over three times as much in taxes to "punish" Iraq alone than they give in support for all missionaries. If this situation were simply a matter of an evil government ruling over a helpless people, that would be no cause for concern. What bothers me is that US Christians want to spend more money doing who-cares-what in Iraq than they do on fulfilling the Great Commission: I have lost a lot of friends simply by pointing out Uncle Sam's evils and questioning the wisdom of identifying with him. If they want to share Babylon's fate, that's their choice. Unfortunately, I don't have enough money to get out of Babylon, so I'll have to share it with them.

This blog is an attempt to convince Christians to remember that their only citizenship described as such is in heaven (Php 3:20) and to make the Great Commission, through simple good neighborliness if nothing else, their first priority. As April Glaspie told Saddam, "We have no opinion about your [nationalist or imperialist] conflicts"; we don't see that anyone is on the side of justice. We can do better.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Another Reply to Andy

A blogger's best friends are his critics, and my friend Andy has come through again, taking vigorous exception to my last post (and, it would seem, others). Blog posts need to be short, so one can't reiterate one's foundational principles every time, but I can't do Andy's comment justice without doing so here, so what follows might sound familiar.

I consider the first principles of good neighborliness to be keeping one's hands to oneself and telling the truth. That means we have no authority from God to so much as touch people's bodies or their property without their consent, either directly or through fraud, and we are not to tell falsehoods about others. We are all descendants of Adam through Noah and therefore equals. We have all sinned and therefore do not deserve anything but God's wrath. We are all trapped in the consequences of the fall, having unlimited desires and limited means of satisfying them, and so we are all subject to the same temptations to maximize our own benefit at the expense of others.

God has, in his providence, equipped some people to be leaders, but that in no way entitles them to go beyond those first principles. The Torah specifically forbids the king from considering himself "better than his brothers" (Dt 17:18-20), and Jesus makes it clear that leadership is primarily service, not power (Lu 22:35-26).

Fine and dandy, you say, but people don't act that way; that's why we need governments to protect us. To which I say, look around: how many governments can you name today, let alone through history, that have actually protected their subjects? Wouldn't a broad-brush painting of human history show that governments are more interested in self-preservation and self-enrichment than in the welfare of their subjects?

It seems to me the question isn't why governments are generally rapacious; it's why some aren't. When the government—any government—makes the laws and determines how they are to be enforced, how much its subjects will pay for it, and what avenues are available for redress of grievances, what incentive do the people who comprise it have to act in behalf of their subjects rather than in their own self-interests? Not all governments or government agents are rapacious, but what is there besides personal scruples and political expediency to limit the raw power of those who have it?

We have just completed the century of benign government, in which almost everyone in the world believed that it is the government's job to actively promote the welfare of its subjects. Of all the governments of the last 110 years, how many of them actually did so? Or are we more likely to think of the death camps, torture chambers, and deadly wars? And weren't the nations that shed the most blood also those with the strongest, most proactive governments?

My argument is not that Uncle Sam is especially unrighteous; rather, contrary to those who think he is somehow above transgression, he is made of exactly the same stuff as other governments: some people consider themselves authorized, yea commanded, to do things that would be criminal if their subjects did it (except as government deputies) and that members of that group would never tolerate if done to them. We're a long way from Argentina, let alone North Korea in that regard, but every law Congress considers takes us closer to them and farther away from the comparatively free society I grew up in (pace Jim Crow), and more so the society where people could go months without any contact with government except the Post Office, where anyone able to handle the money could buy heroin at the local pharmacy, and, most importantly, where the church of Jesus Christ was esteemed to a degree unthinkable today. The purpose of this blog is to challenge Christians to look at our society—yes, North Korea is worse, but there's little to be done about it without violating the first principles of neighborliness—and stop supporting those things that make us bad neighbors.

My opposition to all of what we consider government follows from all this: if we are children of Noah, then giving someone a government job will not per se get rid of his selfishness, nor does it exempt him from keeping his hands to himself or telling the truth. Yet all governments begin by taking people's property, killing those who resist forcibly, and then lying about what happened and making false promises for the future. Unless you're one of those rare birds who voted for Clinton, Bush, and Obama, you have probably argued that our government is guilty of those sins to some degree at some point in the last eighteen years. Why am I wrong for pointing out that both sides, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, accuse each other correctly of using government as a tool of oppression?

It also follows that no terrorist is righteous: my connection of the word with Faisal Shahzad (whom I called in the post a "mass-murderer [wannabe]," remember) was in the context of Judah and Tamar, neither of whom was truly righteous. I take Judah's words "She is more righteous than I" to mean "She was wrong to do what she did, but I am not innocent of sin." Was the only fruit of Judah's repentance that he stopped having sex with Tamar? Who raised the children? Did they have regular contact with their father, or was Tamar a welfare queen the rest of her life? I was suggesting that we see if the present conflict is in some respect a result of our sins. We are, after all, sinners, are we not? Nobody's memory is exhaustive, but isn't it a bit selective to remember only Muslims' attacks against us and not ours against them?

No colonial government is righteous. There has perhaps never been as benign a colonial power as England, but if you read Kipling ("Gunga Din" is a good place to start) or Orwell (Burmese Days), you will, I trust, see that the British Empire was primarily about enriching the homeland at the colonies' expense; civilizing the heathen was good only as long as it didn't interfere with the primary goal. The British colonized China for their benefit, not that of the Chinese; the US was there in 1941, too, which is why those ships were in Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were particularly vicious colonists (e.g., the Rape of Nanking; however, I recently freelance edited a master's thesis by a Korean student at Harvard who made the point several times in passing that the Japanese really were attempting to be of benefit to the Koreans—talk about something hard for me to swallow!), but in all cases it was plunder, differing only in degree. If you don't want to say Pearl Harbor was our fault, fine; but we were not innocent. We were blockading Japan to keep them from expanding their empire into Indochina (to keep the Brits and rapacious French and Dutch from having competition). They wanted to negotiate, but Roosevelt wanted to play hardball; he was purposely working to get the Japanese to fire the first shot so he could undermine the antiwar sentiment in the US. He succeeded.

Remember that Hitler, Roosevelt, Stalin, Mussolini, Churchill, and Hirohito all shared the primary assumption that it is the duty of the government to provide for the needs of its subjects. Joseph Kennedy's support for Hitler outlasted its political expediency while he was emissary to England to the point that he had to be gagged; Prescott Bush (GHWB's dad), Averill Harriman, and Henry Ford all supported Hitler, and Roosevelt initially called Mussolini "that charming Italian gentleman" precisely because they all believed that "some people are more equal than others." Roosevelt's packing of the Supreme Court to keep his unconstitutional domestic policies is cousin, if not brother, to Hitler's maneuverings to acquire power. The war was not about freedom; it was about whose version of tyranny would prevail over what plots of ground.

So yes, the Japanese attack was murder; but it was one imperialist murdering another. Further, the Japanese were aiming at military targets, so most of the casualties were military people; most of Uncle Sam's victims these days are innocents.

I'm not sure who is meant by "people who support and defend killers." If he means the women and children who died in the US sanctions against Iraq, I guess we have a fundamental disagreement about how the world works. I didn't vote for Obama, or for anyone currently in Congress, so I would not accept some Chinese soldier's or politician's protestations that he killed my wife because of US foreign policy; I therefore would side with an anti-Saddam Iraqi who is angered by US activities that kill his loved ones. As for pro-Saddam Iraqis, I would turn the question around: how should the Afghans who suffer under the Taliban think about Americans who support and defend those who kill innocents there?

"We came to the defense of an ally who asked us for help when they were being attacked." I don't know if the reference here is China, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia. I've addressed the situation in China. As for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, when Saddam told GHWB's emissary April Glaspie that he was planning to attack Kuwait, her response was, "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." It was only after he took over the oil fields, the true focus of Uncle Sam's concern in the Middle East, that suddenly Saddam was no longer our ally and we had to send in the troops to retake the oil wells and Red Adair to fix them. Our concern with Saudi Arabia was probably also petroleum based. Rush Limbaugh said as much one of the first times I heard him in 1991: "The war was to guarantee the free flow of oil at market prices."

So the Saudi government invited us to defend them. I don't know that the Saudi government represents Osama any more than Obama represents me. I wouldn't welcome the Chinese here even if Obama invited them, so I can understand Osama's objection, even if his response was murderous.

(And again, I don't think the evidence that Osama was behind 9/11 is conclusive; too many odd things happened that day to allow me think whoever did it didn't have help from inside the US power structure. Osama's name came up just too conveniently on that day, and he has not acted since like he wants credit for the attack. There were many in the US power structure who were looking, even, it would seem, hoping, for "a new Pearl Harbor" to occur so they could bring about precisely the national security police state we have today.)

Bottom line: murder is murder, no matter who does it, terrorists or government agents, uniformed or not. Osama (it seems) and Obama are guilty, as are those who support them. We can continue the cycle of retribution or we can admit our guilt and try to achieve reconciliation. This blog is my attempt to do the latter.

The Most Important Sound Bite of the Twenty-First Century

Just as the most important person of the twentieth century, Karl Marx, lived in the previous century, the words that defined the twenty-first century were spoken in the twentieth.

Here Bill Clinton's Sectretary of State Madeleine Albright tells the world that the death of half a million Iraqi women and children is "worth it" to the interests of US citizens.

I don't remember anyone telling me in the mid-1990s that Saddam would force my wife and daughters to wear burqas, but apparently preventing him from doing so was worth killing half a million innocent oppressed people.

Jesus seems to have thought so, too. His people were more concerned with Clinton's hanky-panky with Monica Lewinsky than with his murderous sanctions against Iraq, and they consider Muslim admiration for Osama, whose fatwa was triggered by the carnage, proof of depravity.

A decade and a half later, we have ObamaCare, scanners at airports that virtually strip passengers naked, two wars in which "our" generals can't define what victory would look like, and a debt burden the whole planet couldn't hope to pay off. Tell me, adopted sibling of Jesus, has it been worth it? Is it worth more of the same?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Down on Main Street

Lansdale, Pennsylvania, my domicile—I can't get myself to call it home—for the last nine years, is a dying small town of rusted girders, crumbling brick, and peeling paint, populated by, oh, eight thousand people carrying the weight of at least ten thousand, many sporting tattoos and a fair amount of piercing. The three notable festivals it hosts are Under the Lights, which shuts down Main Street and lines it with antique cars from the mid-twentieth century (fully a quarter of which had for sale signs this year); Bike Night, which shuts down Main Street and lines it with motorcycles; and Mardi Gras, the parade in which Santa Claus arrives every November (yes, you read that right).

The hosiery and dumpster manufacturies that fueled the housing boom before Roosevelt's war were gone by the time I was born. The former was razed to make room for Starbucks and Walgreen's a couple of years ago, and the elevated conveyor of the latter presides over a field weeds. There is a plastics factory on the outskirts one direction and a pharmaceuticals factory on the outskirts in the other, but the economy in the borough—I think a borough is not part of the township or the county across the borders—is strictly services. The classiest shop to open recently began by landscaping the postage-stamp garden between the display window and the sidewalk, including decorative diode lights. The interior was also a couple of steps above those of the thrift stores and nail salons with which it shares Main Street. Yessir, I had great hopes for the place—until I read the sign: Red Lotus Tattoo Parlor. When the classiest new business on the street is a tattoo parlor, even Kansas isn't Kansas anymore.

Lansdale's slide into the Third World got a boost, if you can call it that, a few years ago when the North Penn Symphony Orchestra needed a summer home. I don't have the chronology straight, but someone decided that White's Road Park needed a band shell—maybe they felt outclassed by Souderton, a much smaller borough five miles away, which has had a band shell for years and hosts concerts every Sunday evening during the summer—and got the borough council on board. So, at a cost of somewhere in the double digits per citizen, Lansdale built a band shell, and at the cost of somewhere in single digits per year, it hosts a couple of dozen concerts on Wednesday nights. I'm not sure how many of those concerts the NPSO (remember them?) plays in, but I don't remember seeing their names on the schedule for this year.

Ah, but the NPSO also needed a winter home. Rehearsing and giving concerts in the local middle school wasn't cutting it. And it just so happened that the Masonic Temple on Main Street had been vacant for years, so all that was needed was to convert it into a concert venue. But while the tax burden of putting up a band shell is pretty innocuous, revamping a building involves real money the borough didn't have.

Never fear, however: state Senator Robert Wonderling is here. (Well, he was; he's since moved on to the Chamber of Commerce.) Senator Wonderling secured funding from the state for what is now the Lansdale Center for the Performing Arts. How do I know he's responsible? Well, for over a year a huge banner has festooned the Main Street side of the LCPA (the main entrance is on the back side, by the city parking lot) proclaiming, "Thank you, Senator Wonderling!" Now Senator Wonderling is an outspoken Christian, so Jesus is no doubt getting all sorts of great publicity from this.

When the LCPA first opened, the display windows on Main Street were pretty much empty save for a picture of a ballerina in that pose where she's swooning backwards and being held by a ballerino. In this picture you couldn't see the people's heads, only enough of the bodies so you'd know what was going on. Maybe I'm just a pervert, but I would say that since they were right in the middle of the picture, the point of interest was the ballerina's tits. Thank you, Senator Wonderling!

But it gets better. A family in our church is very interested in the arts, and one member is employed in some capacity by the LCPA. She mentioned a while back that they were having trouble booking acts there. "It's a public works project looking for a reason to exist." With a fan like that, who needs a critic like me?

Except that I would add that the LCPA is a microcosm of the borough government as a whole. It takes away our money and adds nothing to our lives. The things that matter most, like friendship and family and church, and even Bike Night and Under the Lights and the Red Lotus Tattoo Parlor, would exist without it. It owes its continued existence solely to people's faith in the beneficence of government, that fiction by which each person seeks to live at the expense of others.

The ballerina has recently been replaced by plasma displays that run advertisements and news. Just the other day, they announced that Ghana had beaten the United States in the World Cup. That was weeks ago, but who's counting? The news service they carry is the North Penn News Service, another government operation, this time at the intertownship level, I guess.

Now I get to the impetus for post. Lansdale has its own Development Commission. And you thought only Third World countries had development commissions. Anyway, the Lansdale Development Commission decided that what would jumpstart the economy would be—you guessed it—a pub, Molly Maguire's Pub. So they pulled some strings and played havoc with nearby businesses' parking and put a pub on Main Street, complete with a deck overlooking the parking lot and railroad. I was impressed that the doors actually opened yesterday, in July, the same month the movers and shakers promised up front. It wasn't in time for the First Annual Lansdale Beer Tasting Festival (another civic venture, I'm sure) last weekend, but there was a sign out on Monday that they would be open on Thursday, and open they did.

I'm guessing things didn't quite turn out as planned, though. This morning there was a sign in the window: Closed until further notice.

At least no one can blame Senator Wonderling.