Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Peace, War, Afghanistan, Hitler and Jesus (Dialogue column 7.27.10)

I originally wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of St. Joseph, MO.

A minister friend of mine likes to generate discussions on his blog, and this week he invited his church members, clergy friends and others to chime in on our on-going war in Afghanistan. Knowing how difficult it is to get anybody to read my own blog, I’ve been meaning to post to his on compassionate grounds. This week I ran out of excuses, so I’ve got to share something and I figure I’ll share my thoughts (in no particular order) with you as well.
1. I’m numb to the war in Afghanistan (and also to the continuing war in Iraq that we all seem to have forgotten), and I’m ashamed of my numbness. I’ve mentioned from the pulpit and in other venues how a war that does not demand sacrifice from a nation’s entire populace is an irresponsible war. In both Iraq and Afghanistan—under the Bush and Obama administrations—little has been asked of the American people, while an incredible amount has been asked of the relatively small number of our fellow citizens and their families who actually have fought this war. We do not bear the scars of battle—emotional or physical. We do not know the strain of repeated deployments on families. In fact, much political effort has been exerted to make sure we feel no inconvenience at all, so therefore we have little incentive to question whether the wars being carried out in our name are worth the effort. If the wars made prices at Wal-Mart go up, there would be howling in the streets, but the cries of grief by our soldiers and their families are far too removed from most of us to illicit more than abstract sympathy. I stand amidst the “most of us” who have little personal connection to this war.

2. I’m confused about what is the right thing to do. President Obama’s campaign framed the war in Afghanistan as the “right war” or “the necessary war” as opposed to the “wrong” and “unnecessary” war in Iraq. If that contrast ever was true, then it might have been true following the events of September 11, 2001 when Al Qaeda (the ones who attacked us on 9-11 after all) were still in Afghanistan, but the Taliban and other groups we are fighting today are a vague and mixed bunch. I think I pay pretty close attention to the news, and I’m no longer sure who the enemy is. When our generals and politicians describe our fight as against “the Taliban,” I wonder if they even know which clan, warlord-run gang or faction they mean. When our enemies do not wear uniforms or have a unified command structure, it is pretty hard to determine who they actually are, much less if they are really worth fighting. Add to this confusion, a corrupt and self-serving Afghan government and untrustworthy neighboring countries and things only grow less clear. No one wants another Taliban regime running Afghanistan, but no one has a viable alternative either.

3. I am afraid to ask just what Jesus would have to say about this war. A few months back, I was asked to speak to a seminary ethics class on another topic altogether. At the end of the class time, other topics surfaced and the professor asked us about whether or not each of us was a pacifist. I replied, “Yes but not absolutely.” Others made similar responses, and he shared his own opinion that we were “just wrong if we thought Jesus would ever support a war.” His words have stuck with me, because deep down I suspect he is correct. It is hard to conceive of Jesus, who went to the cross and refused to retaliate against his tormentors, as supporting a war.

Inevitably I hear other voices in my head that ask, “All war is wrong, huh? What about Hitler?” I’ve learned in my life to beware of moral arguments that depend upon an appeal to kill Hitler. After all, even if Hitler or someone like him must be stopped, does that justify everything that was done in World War II or in other wars since?? The questions that seem more worthwhile to ask—at least to me—have less to do with abstract arguments about the necessity of stopping Hitler or other evil people and more to do with whether or not war as it is prosecuted today is the best way to do much of anything. Is war our only option for responding to terrorists and dictators? If we had cared about Afghanistan as anything more than a space on a Cold War chess board would we be there now? What failed states and nearly failed states exist today that could become our future battlefields? Must we wait for war, or are there other choices that can be made today?

I feel numb, confused and afraid about many things regarding the war in Afghanistan, but I feel sure following Jesus means working now for peace in order to prevent future wars. Perhaps, if I had different feelings towards the war besides numbness, confusion and fear—say outrage, grief and horror—then I might be motivated to really work for the peace Jesus desires.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Does the BP Oil Disaster Impact Our Faith? (Dialogue Column 7.13.10)

This post was originally written for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of St. Joseph, MO.

Each day’s news brings images and updates regarding the on-going spewing of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Politicians trade barbs about an off-shore oil drilling moratorium. People in chemical suits wash off oil-soaked wildlife. Gulf shore residents bemoan their fate. BP executives do damage control. Still the oil gushes on.
The news that has dominated the summer seems to have little effect upon daily living here in St. Joseph, MO, as far as I can tell. Gas prices have not risen noticeably. The seafood we eat around here comes out of freezer trucks rather than fresh from the Gulf. Our city’s employment numbers are bad, but they would be anyway regardless of what happens in the Gulf. I do know of one couple that changed their vacation plans to a place other than the Gulf; they had a great time anyway. So, how does the oil disaster in the Gulf affect us or does it at all?

I would offer that it should at least affect us as people of faith.  First, the BP oil disaster (I choose to call it a “disaster” rather than a “spill,” because of the magnitude of the crisis.) should cause us to think anew about the power of sin, both individually and corporately. The oil disaster reveals the false ideas that either government regulation or the free market alone can ensure that human organizations will operate in the best interests of our environment and humanity. Short-sided greed drove both oil company employees and government regulators to disregard safety measures that might have prevented this disaster. Yet, even if government and industry had worked together in concert for responsible oil drilling, they would still be part of an system that chooses the short-term profits of a fossil-fuel industry over the long-term benefits of energy produced by renewable resources. In other words, the system supplies cheap fuel to consumers like you and me that helps our pocketbooks in the near term but deteriorates the quality of life on our planet in the long-term.

I believe that most people in the world care about environment and the long-term viability of humanity as a species—at least in the abstract. In concrete terms, however, our actions place our individual self-interest above these larger concerns. I think we (me included) sense our individual actions make little or no difference in the overall scheme of world politics and economics, and since we do not perceive an immediate threat to our well-being, we do not question whether our helplessness is true or not. In other words, since it doesn’t seem to affect me directly and I can’t do anything about it anyway, why should I change? I choose to believe, however, if each of us really was conscious of the impact our decisions have upon the wider world, we would make different choices. Yet, we are not conscious of such things and so we operate according to self-interest.

In theological terms, the intertwining of selfishness and fatalism from the level of the individual all the way up to transnational corporations and governments is called sin. The apostle Paul described sin in terms that resemble an alien force or power (Romans 5-7) that enslaves us. We choose to think of sinfulness as individual acts, but I think Paul’s words challenge us to think about the cumulative power of all our individual sinful acts as taking on a life of its own. Our refusal to make any real sacrifices as individuals and as a nation that might change the damage produced by our dependence on oil, even though we know it is neither in the long-term best interests of humanity or the environment, demonstrates what Paul described as being “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:17, 20). Indeed, Paul speaks of sin’s power literally alienating humanity from creation (Romans 8:19-21). Our voluntary enslavement to oil provides an analogy to our involuntary enslavement to sin, and both demonstrate our need to seek out a different master—one that provides life for all rather than death.

The second and most important theological point the BP oil disaster should cause us to consider is that there is a power greater than sin. The power of Christ allows us to become (in Paul’s terminology) “slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18) we can serve the causes of justice and righteousness, even though we face problems that defy easy solutions. In other words, out of love, we can make sacrifices that serve the interest of others and of creation. In Christ, our individual actions can change from contributing to the cumulative sin of the world to contributing to the universal saving work of God.

To use the example of the oil disaster, those of us far removed from the disaster can be motivated by Christ to make different decisions as circumstances allow. If we have the means to buy a new car, we can buy one that gets better gas mileage or even a hybrid. For transportation, we can be conscious of ways to walk, ride a bike or combine trips. We can join our voices (via phone calls, letters, e-mails or financial contributions) with like-minded people who want accountability and change in both the private and government sectors. We can choose to view our actions as a part of a larger effort of God to heal our world rather than as futile responses to a system of greed beyond our control. In your response to the oil disaster and in all your actions, may Christ enable you to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Stories from Royal Family Kids Camp (Dialogue Column 6.29.10)

This was originally written for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of St. Joseph, MO.

For 18 years, First Christian Church has provided a camp for abused and neglected children in our community, Royal Family Kids Camp. (It is one of a network of 169 camps in the U.S. and other countries, each like ours is run by a local church.)  This past Sunday, we commissioned this year’s staff and celebrated the beginning of another camp. Several RFKC staff members shared stories of their experiences. Here are a few excerpts:

Sandy Hamlin, camp director

"It was one of the first three years; we had two brothers who were twins and a sister. These kids were huge; they were really very large for being 10 and 11 years old. At meals, they would come back 5 or 6 times and they would eat everything on their plates. We were just absolutely amazed and by Friday, they had cut down to two trays.

"Now you might think two trays is a lot, but for these kids, they really cut down and that was because over the week they learned to trust us. We discovered that those children had been locked in a house in a rural area; I think it was their mother who did it. All the doors and windows had been nailed shut and these kids were in that place for a week and could not get out. So the food that they had in the house was it, when it was gone, it was gone. Someone discovered them and of course they did get them out.

"The social worker told us they had developed an eating disorder because this happened when they were small and as they grew up whenever they had access to food they ate it all. That occurrence demonstrated to us from the very beginning that we do make a difference If we could get these kids to go from 5 and 6 plates of food to two because they trust us and they feel loved and cared for, then we’ve done our job."

Tyson Huff, RFKC staff member for 8 years

"I think it was my third summer and there was a girl who came to camp. All the kids love to swim, but you have to be able to pass the swim test to go into the deep end. They have to swim down and back once or twice without touching the bottom. If they make it, they get a wrist band that means they can be on the other side of the rope.

"This girl had tried every day and just couldn’t pass it. Ken would have us swim next to her because she would end up sinking in the middle. She kept trying and trying and so the very last day we were sitting there and she wanted to do it again. We said, “Enjoy your last day, just have a good time.” But she just wanted to do it. So all the staff present jumped in. We’re all swimming next to her and everyone’s cheering her on. She swam all the way back and made it. When she was finished, she said, 'Now I know what to do if my mom tries to drown me in the bathtub.'

"We realized that for her it was not about swimming in the deep end of the pool at camp; this girl is fighting for survival. The look on her face when she got the bracelet was perfect. She knew now she had won and that she was going to survive."

Taryn Lamme, RFKC staff member for 3 years

"RFKC is an absolutely awesome experience. It’s been completely life changing for me. My first year, I was really excited, but it also very nerve-racking for me because it was for abused children and I’d never dealt with that before. I was a ball of nerves. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I’m so glad that I did because it has absolutely changed my life.

"I will be attending Oklahoma City University School of Law in the fall. I always knew I wanted to go to law school, but I just never knew what I wanted to practice. I never even thought about family law, but seeing these kids every year has caused me to want to do it every single day of my life. It’s absolutely become a passion for me to be a voice for these children and to advocate for their best interest. It’s absolutely been life changing, and I can’t wait to do it every single day for the rest of my life.