Archive for the ‘Public Life’ Category

Years ago, during a sermon about money, a preacher offered this observation (which I paraphrase):

People say that money is neutral; what matters is what you do with it. But money isn’t neutral — it’s powerful. If you have it, you have choices that other people don’t have, and those choices will tug and pull at you. We should not kid ourselves about that.

That message has stayed with me through the years, and it returns every time I think of the financial collapse of 2008. In his book “The Big Short,” Michael Lewis argues that the prospects of huge, immediate profits overwhelmed all caution in the financial sector. In essence, Lewis says, people acted in a manner contrary not only to their own long-term interests, but to the interests of their clients and society. It became a sort of collective delusion, fueled by the prospects of extraordinary profits.

However, Lewis’ argument is generous when compared to that of Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (see trailer), which won the 2011 Oscar for Best Documentary. Ferguson sees in the finance industry willful greed and malevolence, not just delusion. He explores the ways in which that pursuit of money, accompanied by a sense of entitlement,  continues to taint not just Wall Street but government and (yes) university academics.

Whether you find Lewis or Ferguson more persuasive (and both are worth your time), their stories illustrate an observation from my pastor this Sunday: Money operates as an ideology from which we must be converted. When money, rather than God, becomes omnipotent in our lives, its power can distort and harm. The collapse of 2008 is but another cautionary tale of that power — a tale we still struggle to comprehend.

The consequences of 2008 persist today; they are not the abstractions of world set far from the Northwest. They continue to echo in our lives through lost jobs, foreclosed homes, and derailed hopes and dreams — even among those still fortunate enough to have homes and savings. It makes me wonder: Will my children have the same opportunities that my wife and I have enjoyed? I’m no longer sure about that.

But there’s a bigger question: Beyond those earthly worries, how can my wife and I steel our children against the pull of money and its pernicious ideology? How can we model for them a lives that are truly free? In a society rocked by financial uncertainty, perhaps one place we can begin is to put aside fear and trust in a God who will never abandon us. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

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 moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

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I first encountered John Stott some 40 years ago, when a Young Life leader gave me a copy of “Basic Christianity.” After reading of Stott’s death last night, I searched in vain for my copy of that book and the memories that it carried.

Like so many other Christians, I encountered Stott through that book and many others through the years. I learned a great deal about the foundations of the faith through him; I can recall devouring his discussion of the Sermon of the Mount in “Christian Counter-Culture,” even as the book’s title and text strained for post-1960’s relevance.

But it’s not Stott’s specific theological teachings that stayed with me the most through the years. What I remember above all else was the spirit of grace that animated his writing. Stott was a man of deep conviction and even deeper faith, but generosity and humility permeated his words. In this way, he led by example. David Brooks recognized this in a 2004 column about Stott:

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. Stott’s mission is to pierce through all the encrustations and share direct contact with Jesus. Stott says that the central message of the gospel is not the teachings of Jesus, but Jesus himself, the human/divine figure. He is always bringing people back to the concrete reality of Jesus’ life and sacrifice.

I am less confident than Brooks that evangelicals and their leaders have truly emulated Stott, especially as I see all the self-inflicted wounds of the culture wars. It certainly grieved Stott to see how Christians could turn on one another, which spurred him to write an essay titled “Balanced Christianity”:

One of the greatest weaknesses which we Christians (especially evangelical Christians) display is our tendency to extremism or imbalance. … My conviction is that we should love balance as much as the devil hates it and seek to promote it as vigorously as he seeks to destroy it.

Stott penned those words in 1975, but his warning feels no less relevant for Christians who now occupy the public sphere in these oh-so-unbalanced times.

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I mean Rupert Murdoch, not Voldemort.

Over the past two weeks, the developments in News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal have come so fast it is hard to keep pace. No matter how many executives fall on their swords, no matter how many newspapers Murdoch shuts down (one so far), no matter how many tactical retreats on corporate ambitions (the BSkyB takeover) — public outrage and media attention have not been blunted (unless you watch only Fox News).

That’s because the rot truly starts at the top, and no one gets the sense that Murdoch  is experiencing some sort of ethical epiphany — though longtime Murdoch-watcher Jack Shafer believes that Murdoch will survive, if not prevail, as he always does. Still, it has been decades since the Dark Lord of the Press has experienced setbacks of this scale. As A.C. Grayling noted:

There is no redeeming feature in the scandal that has engulfed Mr. Murdoch’s British fief, News International, other than that it has now killed his biggest-selling newspaper, The News of the World. This tabloid made its money by regularly crossing the line of decency; the revelation that it also regularly crossed the line of legality surprises no one, for no one expected any better. What has horrified the British public is the nature of the illegalities.

Still, in this case the moral outrage, however justified, is quick to explode and hard to sustain over time — which is why it has only forced tactical retreats from an organization that long ago lost any sense of shame. Murdoch never embraced the idea of journalism as public service; for that reason Fox News’ “Fair and Balanced” mantra mocks and dismisses the pretensions of other news organizations. Fair and balanced was never the point — only power and profit. 

For that reason, there’s something far more significant at stake here than ethical questions and business models. It is power. The corrupt relationship between Murdoch’s papers and British government is the most obvious example, but we’ve seen it here in the rise of Fox News as an arm of the Republican Party (or is it the other way around?). It is the outsized degree of power accrued by this media organization that distorts the democratic process.

Only when this scandal shakes the distorted (and distorting) power of Murdoch’s empire will it begin to reshape the media landscape for the better. That’s one tall order. Resignations won’t be enough; prosecutions and convictions might not get us there either. But it is one place to start.

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Robin Kirk reviews, and laments, the Christian church’s complacent, and at times complicit, response to the use of torture in the war against terrorism. Most interesting to me were comments by evangelical scholar and ethicist David Gushee. Kirk writes:

Yet, Gushee acknowledged, convincing ministers to approach their flocks to oppose torture is challenging, even with young, committed seminary graduates. “Most graduates are trying to find jobs in churches, whose membership is declining,” he said. “No one wants to offend their congregants about irritating issues like torture.”

Some Christians would draw the line between torture, which they see as a political issue, and faith. Gushee said that when he gave a talk at a Baptist church, one attendee accused him of bringing “leftist politics” into the church. “Even the growing churches aren’t interested in these conversations,” Gushee reported. “They don’t want to mess up a good thing and don’t think it is a part of their agenda, which is one of personal growth and finding your best life now.”

Francis Schaeffer, so often cited as a significant influence on today’s evangelical movement, often warned of Americans’ pursuit of “personal peace and affluence.” But Christians, who he envisioned as countercultural force, all too often swoon to the siren’s call of affluence — so much that we fall deaf to evil of torture and its corrosive effect on our corporate soul.

Personal peace? Perhaps, but it’s a peace hollowed out from within by the embrace of torture. As a nation, this is a truth that we have not been willing to face. I pray that one day we can find the courage to do so.

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“Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture” — that was a prominent headline  earlier this week in The New York Times. To which Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick replied:

Do we have to have another big national debate about torture? Really, do we have to? Headlines like this one, in the New York Times no less, inform us that the Osama Bin Laden raid has “revived” the arguments over the “value of torture.” That’s strange, because until now, the only people “reviving” the debate over the wonders of torture were the same people whose names are actually on the torture memos or who were in the room when torture methods were being approved. This does not constitute a “debate.” A better term would be self-serving propaganda.

Lithwick is right in her characterization of John Yoo and former Vice President Dick Cheney (see video), and in calling their arguments self-serving propaganda. But Lithwick and Deborah Pearlstein (who also laments the “disheartening” return of the torture debate) should not be surprised.

The debate never was settled in the first place.

And President Obama deserves as much credit (so to speak) as anyone. Obama’s choice not to investigate Bush-era abuses essentially put the debate into a deep freeze; there’s never been any proper accounting, much less accountability, that’s needed for a proper public resolution.

As a result, those responsible for perpetuating and defending torture, such as Cheney, Yoo and (so sad) former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, remain free to pounce on any opportunity to make their case.

But as Alice Ristroph notes over at Balkinization, these renewed arguments by the torture apologists undermine their previous rationale: the ticking time bomb:

The fantasy of the ticking bomb was designed to make people more comfortable with torture, in part by suggesting certain conditions on its use: most importantly, an imminent threat of catastrophic harm that could be averted by torture and torture alone. The renewed endorsements of torture after the death of Osama bin Laden illustrate that it’s not about the ticking after all.

On the revised account, the torture of suspected terrorists was justified if it yielded one piece of information that contributed to the eventual success, years after the torture took place, of a long-term manhunt (a hunt based, by all reports, on a vast array of intelligence from many different sources). Torture need not “work” quickly, it need not be the only means of gaining the information, and the information need not be essential to avert imminent catastrophe. Indeed, torture need not be concerned with future threats at all – it seems widely acknowledged that killing bin Laden was a matter of “bringing him to justice” for past deeds, or, as one honest fellow put it, exacting revenge.

Many, notably Andrew Sullivan and Lithwick,  also have offered strong rebuttals. But without the force of an independent investigation we are back to the same deadlocked back-and-forth stalemate on torture that existed during the Bush administration. And in this case, justice debated remains justice denied, to our shame.

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I was in a meeting at church Sunday night when the text arrived from my daughter: “Osama bin Laden is dead everyone is reporting it everywhere.” A few minutes later I learned that other parents in the room were receiving similar messages from their kids.

I spent the rest of the evening at home watching the coverage, a nonstop cavalcade of celebrations in New York, D.C. and elsewhere. I never anticipated how cathartic this moment would be for the nation. I certainly felt some relief at the demise of someone responsible for so much bloodshed. But that relief was — and is — tempered by uneasiness over the intensity of the celebration over bin Laden’s death.

When I perused the blogosphere today, I found I wasn’t alone. One rabbi, while expressing gratitude to the U.S. military, nonetheless added:

When hearing about the downfall of an enemy, the rabbis remind us of the verse from Proverbs:  “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”

This is in line with the tradition that no matter how wicked our enemies are their destruction is not a cause for celebration.  The Talmud tells us that “God does not rejoice with the fall of the wicked.”  As the rabbinic teaching goes, as the Children of Israel were crossing the sea and the army of Pharaoh was drowning, God rebuked the angels for showing excessive joy.  And to this day, our liturgy reflects that by limiting the psalms of joy that we recite to commemorate that event.

Perhaps this is why videos of celebrations at Annapolis, which received considerable traffic on the web earlier today, have now been taken down at YouTube. (See this post as illustration). The chants of “I believe we have won!” are now gone — though one can still find video of midshipmen singing the Star Spangled Banner.

The New York Times, meanwhile, found reservations among  reflections from a Buddhist:

My initial reaction is like everyone else’s — this is a good thing. But Buddhism says there is no monster that exists on his own, without cause. And that every living thing is sacred, including monsters. So I would chalk this up as one of the most intensely confusing moments for Buddhists so far in the 21st century.

Another Buddhist told the Times:

This should not be a joyous occasion. There is no way of hurting or killing someone without creating a karmic come-back. You may believe that killing a man who is intent on killing others is a necessary act, as I believe it was in this case. But you cannot escape the karmic effects of the act itself.

Another reason I’m with Bono in preferring grace over karma.

Thankfully, Christianity Today also posted several essays urging restraint. As one essay notes:

Not everyone who reads what I write here will agree with me that the actions of the American government in the killing of Osama bin Laden were just. Neither will everyone agree with me that rejoicing over that death, understandable as it is, is inappropriate for those of us who know the depth of our own sinfulness and the scope of God’s grace. But once again these events illustrate the tension in being both citizens of the United States of America (or any political community) and citizens of the kingdom of God.

When I watch the celebration, I see too many expressions of vengeance, when we should reflect on the meaning of justice. I see too much tough-guy nationalism, when we should be humbled and reminded of so many lives needlessly lost. I see too much triumphalism, when we should be realistic about the threats that remain in a dangerous world.

Above all, however, I worry that when we celebrate the death of another, even an Osama bin Laden, we lose more than a bit of our own humanity. Karmic come-back, indeed.

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Recently, I was rereading Pascal and came upon this, “Men never do evil as thoroughly or as joyfully as when they do it in the name of God.”

As if we needed a reminder of the truth in those words, we received one recently with the brutal attacks on U.N. workers in Afghanistan, all inspired by the burning of a Koran by Florida pastor Terry Jones.

Fortunately, we also have a reminder that violence is not the only response to terror.

As a counterpoint to the likes of Jones and anti-Sharia fear-mongers, we have the beautiful French film, “Of Gods and Men,” the story of French monks who chose to remain at their monastery amid Algeria’s civil war of the mid-1990s. As A.O. Scott observed in his New York Times review, very few films can match the characterization of faithfulness to God that one finds in “Of Gods and Men.”

In small monastery in the village of Tibhirine, the small group of Trappist monks lived quiet lives of devotion to God and service to their Muslim neighbors. By simply being present over decades, the monks’ actions spoke more loudly than words, and “Of God’s and Men” captures the fruit of this devotion in the relationships between the monks and villagers.

These moments of Christ’s love incarnate are what help sustain the monks, for the film’s tension rises from the stark contrast between the monks and the chaos enveloping a land they’ve come to love. They hear and see news of foreigners executed by Islamist radicals, creating a sense of dread that slowly builds like a slow-moving yet insidious fog. In contrast, the monks find their anchor in the routines and rituals of the monastic life, from study to worship to chores to service, even as that sense of dread closes in.

Still, the monks debate again and again whether they should stay or go. They see no glory in becoming martyrs; they prefer to live. It is more than tempting for most of them to leave. But each time they debate they arrive at the same conclusion: They must stay. Their sense of call is too great.

In this way the film is consistent with John Kiser’s excellent 2002 book, “The Monks of Tibhirine,” which offers even more depth and texture to our understanding of these monks (who were not the only foreign Christians murdered by Algerian Islamists). The quote at the top of this post, appearing in both the book and film, comes from the writings of Luc, the 80-year-old physician who cared for up to 150 people a day, including some Islamists wounded in clashes by the government. The monks’ ethic would not allow them to discriminate between those in need of medical care, even Islamists who threatened their lives. 

Nonetheless, perhaps’ the film’s greatest strength, which separates it from the clichéd renderings in many “Christian” films, is that these men are far from plastic saints. They are all so human, with courage and fear mixed together in such a manner that you could feel the air being squeezed from their lungs. Great credit goes to the film’s cast members, who blended both restraint and emotional depth to powerful effect.

In the end, violence does claim their lives, about a month after Islamists seized eight of the monks in an effort to extract the release of prisoners from the Algerian government. The film, mercifully, spares us the final visual details: Only their heads were found.

Yet the film does not leave one with the sense that the monks gave their lives in vain, a point confirmed by Kiser’s book, which notes that word of the murders created great division among the Islamists, with many believing that this murder of holy men was one step too far.

I can’t recommend “Of Gods and Men” enough. It’s not likely to appear in theaters outside of urban areas like Seattle, but if you have a chance to see it do so. Otherwise, be sure to rent (or buy) the film when it appears on DVD. If these monks could show such courage amid such severe a threat, how much more could we muster in response to the fears that hobble our own nation?

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