Sunday, December 10, 2006


Now that the Iraq Study Group has issued its report, critics are using the word surrender to characterize its recommendations. The New York Post Photoshopped images of the faces of James Baker and Lee Hamilton onto the bodies of monkeys with the headline "Surrender Monkeys." And right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh offered the following criticism.

You know, bipartisan simply means Republicans cave on their core principles and agree with Democrats. That's why everybody is praising the stupid report. Because there's nothing in this about winning, there's nothing in this about victory. There's not anything in this about moving forward in a positive way. This is cut and run, surrender without the words.

As I've written before, I recognize a non sequitur when I see one, and it is a non sequitur to use the word surrender in this context.

1. We declared war on the government of Saddam Hussein. We defeated that Government and drove it from power. There's no one to surrender to in the old regime.

2. We helped institute a new government in Iraq, a government put in power as a result of the new constitution that was ratified by the Iraqi people and the elections that were subsequently held. We are in partnership with this government which, unfortunately, has not been able to consolidate its power. We can't surrender to the new Iraqi regime; that regime is perhaps the one group in Iraq that wants our presence.

3. There is currently armed conflict going on between extreme Sunni and extreme Shiite elements in Iraq. They are killing one another, and they are killing American soldiers, largely because our soldiers are attractive targets. But we cannot surrender to both sides in a civil war.

4. There are the Iraqi people. We are there for their sake, to help them build a free and democratic way of life. They responded by risking their lives to vote in the recent elections. They are the victims of the destabilized situation which exists. It makes no sense to surrender to the Iraqi people. We want them to win!

5. That leaves the situation itself, the reality that exists in war-torn Iraq ... the conflict, the chaos, the bloodshed. We can't surrender to reality itself, can we?

Or can we?

Perhaps in this sense, surrender would be a good thing: willingly to give up our denial, to see with open eyes the futility we have created, to acknowledge mistakes in judgment, to stare reality in the eye ... and not flinch from what we see.

To use religious language, perhaps the way forward is to repent of our sins, to ask forgiveness, to change direction, to seek the help of a higher power ... and to enlist the assistance of the world community.

So with this sense of the word (which, admittedly, is not what Rush or the New York Post had in mind), I am calling for surrender--giving up the delusion that the United States of America has any power by itself to affect the situation for the better. I am calling us to reach out to the hundreds of millions of moderate Moslems in the world and seek their help to mediate the intrareligious conflict between their Sunni and Shiite brethren. As a result, our standing in the world might just begin to be rehabilitated. And, more importantly, the suffering people of Iraq might have a decent chance to regain control of their own lives and their own country.

Friday, November 03, 2006

What's your plan?

So George Bush is out on the stump, campaigning for embattled fellow Republicans, trying to maintain a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. He's come up with a pretty clever little line:

"What's your plan?" he rhetorically asks his audience, challenging Democratic candidates who are not present to offer a plan for winning in Iraq.

"What's your plan?" the audience yells back.

"See, they don't have a plan," Bush says. "Harsh criticism is not a plan for victory. Second guessing is not a strategy."

But this line is nothing more than rhetorical sophistry. If his question were perfectly honest (which is a bit more than we can expect from any politician), he might pose it this way:

I have totally messed up Iraq. I ignored the wisdom that led my father to stop the first Iraq war after 100 hours. In ignoring that wisdom, I found out why my father made that decision. I have created a civil war. I have created a breeding ground of resentment towards America. I have created a training camp for future terrorists. As a result of my messing up, money and lives have been poured down the drain. Wasted. Gone forever.

I don't have a plan for victory, because victory is not possible.

So I respectfully ask my political opponents, do you have a plan? Do you have any good ideas for extracting us from the mess I have created? Because I'm out of ideas.

But George Bush is not honest enough to say this, even though saying something like this might just be the best thing he could possibly do. It might just rally the nations of the world, it might just motivate people of good will, to work to stop the bloodshed and horror that have resulted from Bush's mistake. As a good, pious Christian, surely he knows there is no forgiveness, no atonement, no new life apart from repentence.

But that's not what Bush is saying. He's challenging the Democrats, "What's your plan?"

He might as well be asking, "How do you propose to sweep the water back under the bridge?"

Sunday, October 29, 2006

a tiddlywinks contest: just as effective

Digby on his blog Hullabaloo writes the following concerning criticism of the Iraq war:

I hate the Democrats who ... spout lie after lie: that the president knew in advance there were no WMD in Iraq; that he lied to Congress to gain its support for military action; that he pushed for the democratization of Iraq only after the failure to find WMD; that he was a unilateralist and that the coalition was a fraud; that he shunned diplomacy in favor of war.

These lies, contradicted by reports, commissions, speeches, and public records, are too preposterous to mock, but too pervasive to rebut, especially when ignored by abetting media.

I simply point out that digby is misrepresenting the criticisms of many Americans--—Democrats, Independents, and Republicans as well--—who lament the disastrous mistake that took us into the expensive and counter-productive quagmire known as the War in Iraq. Let us examine in some detail the so-called "lies" that digby is attributing to Bush's critics.

that the president knew in advance there were no WMD in Iraq. This is not what critics are claiming. Bush undoubtedly believed there were WMD in Iraq. The criticism is that intelligence was poorly interpreted and "cherry picked" by neo-conservatives in the Administration. The President was misinformed by his own political appointees, appointees who served him and the nation poorly. Bush failed to question critically the interpretation of intelligence that was presented to him.

that he lied to Congress to gain its support for military action. Bush made statements of fact that turned out to be erroneous. So did Colin Powell in his address to the United Nations. They did not lie (if a lie is defined as a purposeful misrepresentation of facts). The charge is that they believed the erroneous "intelligence" that was fed to them and passed it on as fact.

that he pushed for the democratization of Iraq only after the failure to find WMD. No responsible critic is claiming that the goal of democratizing Iraq was "invented" after the WMD rationale proved to be fallacious. The criticism is that after the original rationale for the preemptive invasion on Iraq proved to be vacuous (the self-defense argument), the Administration's P.R. machine changed its tune and said the invasion was about bringing Democracy to Iraq. Had that been the reason stated before the war effort began, Americans would never have supported the invasion, and we wouldn't be in this mess.

that he was a unilateralist and that the coalition was a fraud. Who has said the coalition was "a fraud"? That's not the criticism. I think John Stewart on The Daily Show said it best. When Bush named a minor northern European country high on a list of coalition members in response to a criticism voiced by John Kerry, Stewart asked, with a tone of incredulity in his voice, "Poland???" Other than Britain, the participation of other nations in the Coalition has been much more symbolic than real.

that he shunned diplomacy in favor of war. Well, digby, why don't we just rephrase this. Bush shunned weapons inspections in favor of war. We didn't need to fight a war to rid Saddam of WMDs. Therefore any other approach would have resulted in a WMD-free Iraq: a regime of weapons inspection, diplomatic negotiations, even a tiddlywinks contest between American and Iraqi schoolchildren.

You call the arguments of war critics as being "too preposterous to mock, but too pervasive to rebut." If you would only state the arguments as they are actually made by most critics, they are not at all preposterous. They are factual. And how, or why, would you want to rebut the true cost of this war? Thousands of American soldiers killed and tens of thousands of American casualties. Tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have lost their lives. Hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars down the drain. And ... zero WMDs found.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Flying Spaghetti Monsters

There is a fascinating interview with Richard Dawkins on Dawkins is a biologist and an atheist. Although his take on the role of faith and religion in human life differs from mine, he offers an interesting and significant point of view.

I would not argue with his logic; I would simply note his assumptions. In the opening question of the interview, Dawkins is asked why he became an atheist. "I started getting doubts when I was about 9," he responded, "and realized that there are lots of different religions and they can't all be right."

This is precisely the assumption with which fundamentalists begin. There is one God, one truth, and thus only one religion can be true. This assumption can take different forms.

• One can assume that one religion has all the truth and that the others by implication have less of the truth (example: Joseph Ratzinger's discussion of the lesser status of Protestant Christianity in Dominus Iesus).

• One can assume that there are certain fundamental nuggets of truth and that religions that deny those nuggets are false religions.

• One can assume that adherents of one's religion will have eternal life and "go to heaven" and that everyone else won't.

I start with a different assumption entirely. Any religion offers glimpses of what is true, what is real. Different religions provide different glimpses. We are enriched by the existence of all of our faith traditions because each contributes to our comprehension of the unknown, the mysterious, the holy.

The same is true with science. Biologists try to gain understanding of the mystery of the universe by studying living creatures, chemists by studying how different substances react with each other, physicists by studying motion and gravity. Different methodologies, differents fields of investigation, but each field of science contributes to our comprehension of the universe.

The interviewer asks Dawkins, "What is so bad about religion?"

"Well, it encourages you to believe falsehoods, to be satisfied with inadequate explanations which really aren't explanations at all. And this is particularly bad because the real explanations, the scientific explanations, are so beautiful and so elegant."

The real explanations? Science offers a final, true, and complete explanation of life and the universe? Why is reseach still going on?

So beautiful and so elegant? This is the language of faith! Yes, there is beauty and elegance in the discoveries of a Galileo, a Newton, a Darwin. But there is also beauty and elegance in the insights of the writer of Job, in the passion for social justice of the Hebrew prophets, in the wisdom of Hillel, in the spiritual genius of Jesus of Nazareth. And though I am less familiar with other streams of faith tradition, I acknowledge the beauty and elegance in the paths set forth by Mohammed, by the Buddah, by Taoism and Hinduism and by Native American spirituality.

So, Richard Dawkins, I agree with you that some expressions of religion are dangerous. I agree with you that unquestioned faith can blind rather than illumine its adherents. I agree with you that there is a beautiful, fascinating, still-to-be-understood world and universe out there for humanity to explore. And I would suggest that when you use the language of beauty and elegance to speak of the discoveries of our minds, you are acknowledging that truth is not just of the mind. Truth affects us at a deeper place of our own being. Call that deeper place what you will, I think we are essentially in agreement!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Mel Gibson

“Please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite.”

With these words, Mel Gibson tried to apologize for anti-Semitic remarks he made upon being arrested for drunk-driving. He went on to ask for a meeting “with leaders in the Jewish community with whom I can have a one-on-one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing.... I am in the process of understanding where those vicious words came from during that drunken display.”

I hope these words are more than just PR.

Where to begin that journey to healing? Gibson need look no further than the critique he received from his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. Many thoughtful commentators, both Jews and progressive Christians, commented at the time on the implicit anti-Semitism in that film. Gibson rejected that criticism. “My detractors would say that [the movie] is going to promote hatred. I think that's utter nosense. The absurdity of that staggers me.” Hello! It was the same hateful theology reflected in that film that expressed itself in Gibson's druken rage.

Here’s the essence of the problem: Anti-Judaism is embedded in the Christian narrative. No, the teachings of Jesus were not anti-Semitic; Jesus was a faithful first-century Jew. But as the Christian movement moved away from traditional Judaism, theological conflict developed. This conflict was expressed in texts written during the first century. But when later readers studied those texts, they read the text out of its original historical context. They read a story that [unhistorically] gave first century Jews primary responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus.

When the emporer Constantine subsequently made the cross the center of his imperial church’s orthodoxy, the anti-Jewishness of the passion narrative became wedded to the heart of christian theology. Millions of faithful Christians uncritically accepted the story and, along with it, the historical untruth that “the Jews killed the Son of God.” There’s a straight path of causality leading from this to the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and to countless hateful actions committed against the Jews. The Passion of the Christ is yet another example of what happens when Christians uncritically accept the passion narrative as transparently historical.

Gibson trusted that his dad, who taught him the faith, didn't lie to him. Mr. Gibson, you dad didn't lie to you. He was just unquestioning of what he had been taught. Your dad is yet another uncritical believer who refused to question an anti-Semitic tradition. Like father, like son?

Gibson once expressed the belief that the holocaust never really happened. Mr. Gibson, you really need to ask yourself some hard questions: Where did that belief come from? Why was it so important for you to deny that Jews suffered so terribly at the hands of the Nazis?

You have apologized for what you said to the arresting officer. You have stated a desire to begin your process of healing. Please know that it will not be easy. You will have to go deep, deep to the heart of your faith. You will have to be willing to examine your assumptions. You will have to begin to question what you have been taught from the day you were born. You said it was absurd to think that your ultra-orthodox faith could lead to hatred. Maybe it’s not so absurd after all.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


"We're not going to stop until marriage between a man and a woman is protected."

The above statement was made by Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, on June 7, 2006. The occasion of these remarks was the failed attempt in the U.S. Senate to cut off debate on a Constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage.

I understand where the Senator is coming from, and let me try to acknowledge his views. In his heart of hearts, he believes that homosexuality is wrong. He bases this belief on his reading of the Scriptures. He sees a few verses in the Bible (very few, by the way) that seem to address the issue of homosexuality. Taking these verses as authoritative, the Senator concludes that homosexuality is against the Law of Moses (as per Leviticus) and the law of nature (as per Romans). He then (and here's his leap of logic) infers that gays and lesbians in committed relationships should not, in the United States of America, enjoy the same legal rights as committed heterosexual couples.

So here's my question: Why should a non-central tenet of the Law of Moses, a body of Law that the Apostle Paul seems to say that Christians are no longer subject to (by the way), a tradition that governs the covenental relationship between God and Israel, govern a modern, secular country such as the United States of America?

Sometimes it opens one's eyes to see one's views set in a different context. To ask a parallel question: Where does Sen. Brownback stand on the question of Islamic law requiring women to wear burkas? Should modern women living in an Islamic country be required by force of law to cover themselves in public? What does he think about the imposition of strict Islamic law on modern women who want to live a modern lifestyle? Is he aware, for instance, that women are not allowed to drive cars in Saudia Arabia, that the law protects the right of husbands to rape their wives or to prevent wives from travelling without their permission?

So this is my point: Religious people should be free to accept for themselves the dictates of their own tradition. But they should not assume they have authority to impose the dictates of their religious tradition upon other people. That's what modernity means. That's what the enlightenment bequeathed upon us. That's what the First Amendment to the Constitution is all about.

The last time I looked, the right of men and women to marry was well established under law. Nobody is proposing taking away that right. It's not hard to get a marriage license if you're a heterosexual couple. In some places (Las Vegas comes to mind), you can even get married on the spot; the law requires no time to reflect on the decision a couple is about to make.

"We're not going to stop until marriage between a man and a woman is protected."

Heterosexual couples do not need their rights protected. If they want to get married, they are free to do so. If they want to spend their lives together, nobody is getting in their way.

It's the rights of gay and lesbian couples that is at stake here. Are they not Americans? Is this not, as Vice President Cheney once said relative to this subject, a free country? If two people love one another and want to spend their lives in a committed relationship, what business is that of Sam Brownback, or James Dobson, or Jerry Falwell, or you, or me?

If a religious community does not want to recognize the rights of gays and lesbians to live in a commited relationship, fine! But if government imposes that religious belief upon its citizens, it no different than insisting that women shroud themselves in public.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Why is so afraid?

The website today has published a "white paper" concerning the May 19 release of The Da Vinci Code. It is safe to say that Ted Baehr does not like the movie. It is his right to feel offended by it and to encourage individuals to boycott the movie.

However, the White Paper's rhetoric seems a bit excessive. Listen to some of its statements:

The release of this movie is characterized as war on Christianity... a vicious attack on Christianity unprecedented in the history of Hollywood.

The Da Vinci Code, it asserts, presents blasphemous fiction as fact, ... denies the divinity of Jesus Christ, ... alleges Jesus married Mary Magdalene with whom [he] had a child, ... falsely claims the Christian church has historically hidden these 'facts' through deception, murder and conspiracy, ... [and] has already caused great harm.

Why is The Da Vinci Code so dangerous? Because many Christians are already theologically malnourished; how will they withstand the assault of distortions, lies and bigotry from The Da Vinci Code.... We must combat The Da Vinci Code's attack on Jesus, the Bible, and the very integrity of the Christian faith.

This sounds like the rhetoric of some very frightened people, and I very frankly do not understand Baehr's alarm. It seems to me that the Christian movement has withstood challenges far greater than a paperback novel over the past two millennia. Among these, to name just a few:

• The church survived the execution of Jesus of Nazareth by the Roman Empire just three years after he began his ministry. In all probability, the movement should have withered and died, right then and there...

• The church has survived the persecution and martyrdom of countless believers, not only in the first few centuries of the church but in other times and places when Christians have dared to witness to their faith and to speak unpopular truth in the face of unjust social conditions...

• The church has survived the co-option of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine who made it into a State Religion, who imposed onto it an orthodoxy formulated by the Council of Nicea, and who utterly changed the nature of its worship and lifestyle...

• The church has survived the unconscionable behavior of many unwise leaders of the church who instigated violence in the name of Jesus. Remember the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the bombing of family planning clinics?

• The church has survived the unbending rigidity of Christian fundamentalists who, like fundamentalists of all faiths, claim to possess the only faithful interpretation of the truth...

Such offenses have posed—and continue to pose—a far greater danger to the church, its faith, and its life, and yet somehow, by the grace of God, the movement begun by a Palestinian rabbi in the first century is still alive. If the church can overcome all of these assaults, some self-imposed and others imposed from without, surely it will survive the release of a Hollywood movie.

Allow me this brief theological commentary: The Da Vinci Code is just a novel. It is a good read, but it's fiction. It explores the imaginative possibility that Jesus might have been married, that Jesus might have fathered a child, that Mary Magdalene might have been his wife. The gospels are completely silent on the question of whether Jesus married. It is not impossible. It might actually be the case. It might not be the case. But whether or not Jesus was married, it does not affect his message in the least. It does not diminish the spiritual genius reflected in the Sermon on the Mount. It does not detract from the ethical imperative of the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor. It does not quiet the church's voice from speaking truth to power in our day. It does not prevent Jesus' followers from ministering to the hungry and thirsty, the naked and homeless, the sick and the prisoners. It does not stand in the way of our solidarity with those who are oppressed.

Why is so afraid?