Sunday, May 29, 2011

JUST ANOTHER RACE?

“You must treat this track with respect or it will bite you.” 

So said 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner and million-times “almost winner” Mario Andretti to Formula 1 driving ace Arie Luyendyk when he came to Indianapolis as a rookie in 1985. Luyendyk went on to win the race in 1990 and 1997.

Gripped by the aura of the Indianapolis 500 a few years ago, the following piece came together for me. Perhaps the poem makes sense only to those who have lived within the gravitational pull of the Brickyard for a lifetime. This year’s story lines prove it true, however:


The average speed for qualifying--over 224 mph--makes it, as always, the fast race in any auto racing series.  Four women qualified among the 33 drivers.  The pole winner--Alex Tagliani--is not from one the power teams, but from Indianapolis-based Sam Schmidt Racing, owned and operated by a former Indy racer who was mangled and permanently paralyzed in an IndyCar crash several years ago. There is local hopeful Ed Carpenter, driving for Sarah Fisher Racing.  There is John Andretti, back for another shot at a race that has eluded his family for decades.  There are older and younger drivers who have mortgaged everything to get into the Indy 500. They should not be here.  But here they are—choking back tears as they get one more chance to drive in and win the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

What is the mystique of this oval,
this ribbon of banked asphalt
that it winds its way into
the hearts and hopes of
many a would-be conqueror?

Is this not merely pavement?
One more course to be run?
One more track to be subdued?
And is not Indy “just a race?”

Why, then, are the greatest
not considered so until they have
proven their mettle here?
Why do the sport’s most promising
strive a lifetime to be in The 500?

Once run, Indy asserts a
greater grip on its pursuers.
It shadows their other victories.
It haunts their off-track pursuits.
It lures them back to its graceful sweep.

Other races simply mark the calendar
as tests and rehearsals for another
chance at The Brickyard.
Only the fastest elite qualify here
and only a select few win.

Indy in May turns men into boys,
turns boys into men of speed
and women into its grand dames.
It dares anyone to call it “just a race”
but honors all who bring due respect.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

DIABETES: A PERSONAL JOURNEY

I'm putting some skin in this because I've got loved ones with it and personal risk factor

I will ride 100 miles around the Indianapolis Motor
Speedway on June 11 to raise funds for diabetes
research and prevention awareness.
I attended a lunch-hour information meeting about ovarian cancer today.  It’s not like I’m going to get it.  I attended for several reasons.  First, because a coworker invited me to the event—and because cookies were promised (and they were good, Alison; thanks!).  Second, because I have a good friend I care very much for who has ovarian cancer.  Third, because I’m generally interested in early cancer detection, awareness and prevention initiatives because my daughter, father, mother and sister are all cancer survivors.  I attended, fourth, because as one who works in development and nonprofit training, I like to see various ways nonprofit organizations present their causes and engage people in them.

What I learned about ovarian cancer today reminded me of the importance of clinical trials.  Currently, there’s only a 50% survival rate for ovarian cancer, 4 out of 5 women are in advanced stages of it when it is detected, and this particular cancer is very difficult to detect and treat.  But this was the same for testicular cancer just 12 years ago.  Then, the survival rate was less than 10% and early detection protocols were hardly known.  But through clinical trials (that is, persons with cancer being willing to participate in a clinical study, with a 50% chance that they are receiving just a placebo), Dr. Larry Einhorn of Indiana University Hospital developed an effective chemotherapy specifically for testicular cancer.  Lance Armstrong was one of the early recipients of Einhorn’s treatment.  Miraculously, he survived—and thrived.  Today, over 90% of men who are diagnosed with testicular cancer survive.  Perhaps funding for ovarian cancer research and participation in clinical trials will produce a similar result in the near future.

I asked my work associate why she got involved in raising awareness of ovarian cancer.  She said she had an aunt die of the disease just a little over a year ago and she wanted to make a difference for other women and their relatives.  Most of us get involved with passion for a cause when we have a personal stake in its outcome.  Many times, our own stories of pain, loss, victory, and/or survival shape our involvements and futures in profound ways.

About the same time I agreed to attend the lunch-time ovarian cancer info meeting, I also signed up to ride 100 miles around Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the “Tour de Cure” to raise funds for research and prevention awareness for the American Diabetes Association.  Of course, I’d really appreciate my friends and associates supporting my effort in some small way: how about donating a penny for every mile I pedal?  That would be $10.  Skip a lunch and a few Starbucks and, there, you have it covered.  I committed to raise $150 (and I will put in most of that), but I’d like to raise up to $500 for this cause.

Why would I ride to cure diabetes?  I mean, other than getting to brag that I will have pedaled 100 miles around the historic Indy 500 track?  Because diabetes strikes close to home.  The disease claimed the life of my beloved Aunt Willie Mae about 15 years ago (has it been that long?!).  I literally watched Aunt Mae slowly die of blood poisoning after her 63-year-old, diabetes-ridden, limb-amputated body was no longer able to sustain one more round of dialysis.  Because my mother and another aunt and uncle currently have type 2 diabetes.  Because, as a pastor, I’ve attended to many parishioners and their family members who have died of diabetes.  And because I am--though I am quite healthy and all my blood “numbers” are excellent at this point in my life--a hereditary risk for the disease.

Will my 100 miles and $500 (with your help!) make a difference?  I believe so.  Research and awareness are two critical factors in tackling and, ultimately, preventing any disease or condition that so ravages the lives of millions of people in the United States.  Right now, it seems that many Americans are engaging in bad eating and sedentary behaviors that fuel the growth of this condition.  Our national quality of life impacts from dealing with more and more people developing diabetes are skyrocketing.  If the ADA can get more Americans to take basic personal steps to prevent and control the disease, my ride will have been worth it.

But as much as the money is useful for the ADA, participating directly is important for me.  Just like after her aunt’s death, my work associate felt a naturally good impulse to help address ovarian cancer, it just seems right for me to put some skin in the game to do what I can to prevent happening to others unnecessarily what happened to my Aunt Willie Mae.  And, maybe, continuing to build routine exercise--like cycling!--and healthy eating habits into my own life will prevent the condition from getting the best of me.

___________


If you'd like to support my “Tour de Cure” ride, here's how: Go to this page, click on “DONATE” and then put in “John Hay.”  That will take you to my Tour de Cure personal page.  You can donate there.  Thanks for taking the time and making an investment!

Monday, May 23, 2011

TOWARD MEMORIAL DAY: LET'S CLARIFY WHAT WE HONOR

Distinguish between honoring our war dead and celebrating the perpetuation of militarism

I love how Indianapolis pulls out all the stops on Memorial Day weekend.  With the eyes of the world on our city on Sunday, there'll be plenty of pageantry and patriotic fervor to spread around.  No city has a greater responsibility, then, to accurately frame what Memorial Day honors.

As it is currently observed, the holiday appears mostly a celebration of American military prowess.  Military might is prominent at all our big events, from military bands and troops marching in parade to the latest military hardware proudly on display to a bone-rattling fly-over of military jets at the singing of our national anthem before the race begins.

God, guns, and guts will together be praised.  In the eyes of our youth, a distinct but misshapen impression will form: Memorial Day is about recognizing military might and honoring those who fight for us.  Secondary false assumptions will be implanted: This is the primary way we preserve our freedoms and ensure democracy.  This is the way it's always been.  And this is the way it always must be.

But the intention of Memorial Day is to honor all who died in America’s wars, not to celebrate militarism or bless war.  It’s clear from the inception of “Decoration Day” in 1868 by General John Logan and its post-WWI promotion by Ms. Moina Michael that the focus was to honor our war dead, particularly by decorating their graves and graciously supporting the many widows and orphans war leaves in its wake.

Though routinely disregarded, the distinction between memorializing our war dead and celebrating militarism is critical.  Instead letting the holiday be co-opted to perpetuate militarism, let us resolutely focus on honoring those who have given their lives in our nation’s conflicts.  Reverently consider the cost of even one soldier’s life and its impact in lost potential, relationships, creativity, and community contribution over a generation.

This Memorial Day is an opportunity to consider: given the cost in these precious lives, we must find a better way, not just repeat the past again and again.  War--and those whose lives are snuffed out or haunted by it--gives us every indication that we have not yet explored or employed our best intellectual, spiritual and material resources for preventing or addressing conflicts.  

The Memorial Day holiday affords us an opportunity to contemplate how far we have to go as a nation--and as a human family--in transforming our means of defending liberty, advancing democracy, and procuring justice for all.

NOTE: This post was published as a "Letter to the Editor" in the Friday, May 28, 2010 edition of the Indianapolis Star. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

NIGHTMARES OF THE RAPTURE

My childhood was marked by fears generated by--of all things--speculative religious eschatology.

HOPE AND FEARING. This latest round of end-times hype brought back memories of childhood nightmares--nightmares and fears of being left behind in "the rapture" or not being ready for the much-anticipated and immediately-expected second coming of Jesus.  Maybe it's worth a bit of explanation of the basis of these fears and how I overcame them.

END TIMES HYSTERIA.  Evangelical hype about the Second Coming was triggered by two events: (1) the formation of national Israel in 1948, and (2) the Six Days War in 1967.  These, along with a speculative interpretation of the word "generation" (as in, "this generation will not pass away" until all is fulfilled).  End times hysteria gained momentum through the 1970's, featuring films like "A Thief in the Night" and "Years of the Beast," and books like Hal Lindsey's bestseller "The Late Great Planet Earth" and, later, Tim LaHaye's "Left Behind" series.  Sermons were filled with scenarios of judgment, Armageddon, nuclear holocaust, left-behind loved ones, and ominous timelines updated with every troubling turn of events.

HEAVY-HANDED SPECULATION.  None of the adults I looked up to ever inferred that any of this was the least bit speculative.  End-times conjecture came across with Gospel-truth finality--complete with guilt, shame, and fear meted by authority figures that were most significant to me.  The message was one of fear, warning people of dire consequences of not being right with God in these perilous end times.  Those who were right with God were stridently pressed to witness to the unsaved (and made to feel that the weight of their loved ones, friends and neighbors eternal destiny rested on their own witness--or failure to do so).  Whatever its real or imagined significance, second coming teaching seemed to have little to do with hope or looking forward.

WAKING UP SCARED.  All this had a powerful impact on a little boy who would wake up in a cold sweat and crying from end-times nightmares.  Though I was an earnest child, my head would be filled with visions of being left behind in "the Rapture" or of the world ending in chaos.  Every small slip-up--every bad attitude--was magnified as a possible factor for being "left behind."  I now realize that the real and ever-present specter of nuclear holocaust combined with this incessant end-times preaching had a profound impact on my childhood and life.

WRONG AND DAMAGING. In retrospect, I am convinced that most of this dimension of preaching and teaching was--and is--neither Biblically defensible nor emotionally sound. It was profoundly wrong for responsible people to present and use it in the manner it was.  The damage it is has caused at both personal and social levels is profound.  I will address both these in a subsequent blog post.

REJECTING SPECULATION.  For the sake of Biblical integrity, I reject speculative prophecies.  I turn away from those who use shallow conjecture, proof-texting, fantastic theories and numerology in relationship to this much-maligned touchstone of Biblical faith.  I cannot single-handedly rescue and redeem the doctrine of the second coming.  I commend all who seek to correct and clarify it so that it may draw people of faith forward in confidence and faithfulness to the present generation (Rob Bell's recent book Love Wins is such a corrective; and I can recommend others).

DAILY ADVENT, DAILY GRACE.  After those childhood days, I now choose to not focus as much on what might happen at the end of history, whenever that may be--near or far (and I think a good case can be made from the Bible that is as likely far as near).  Instead, I focus mostly on the grace that is present--in history and in our own histories--here and now.  Grace is a daily advent.  God's presence comes near in surprising, inspiring, comforting, challenging, insight-giving, barrier-breaking, bridge-building, neighbor-loving, transforming ways.  Grace is a confirmation of God's presence, of divine possibilities, and an anticipation of a certain transcendent future.  Grace is breaking into history afresh today.  Perhaps, it will break through in some small ways via the likes of us.


HERE AND NOW: A REFLECTION BY PAUL TILLICH


In light of the latest end-times hype, I recall this wisdom from one the leading 20th-century theologians.

WHAT IS POSSIBLE FOR US?  "The goal of humankind is not progress toward a final stage of perfection; it is the creation of what is possible for us in each particular state of history; and it is the struggle against the forces of evil, old ones and new ones, which arise in each period in a different way.

THE COMING OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD.  "There will be victories as well as defeats in these struggles.  There will be progress and regressions.  But every victory, every particular progress from injustice to more justice, from suffering to more happiness, from hostility to more peace, from separation to more unity anywhere among us, is a manifestation of the eternal in time and space.  It is, in the language of the writers of the Old and New Testaments, the coming of the Kingdom of God.  For the Kingdom of God does not come in one dramatic event sometime in the future.  It is coming here and now in every act of love, in every manifestation of truth, in every moment of joy, in every experience of the holy.

THE PRESENT STRUGGLE.  "The hope of the Kingdom of God is not the expectation of a perfect stage at the end of history, in which only a few, in comparison with innumerable generations, would participate, and the unimaginable amount of misery of all past generations would not be compensated.  And it might even be that those who would live in it, as 'blessed animals,' would long for the struggles, the victories and the defeats of the past.  No!  The hope of humankind lies in the here and now, whenever the eternal appeals in time and history.  This hope is justified; for there is always a presence and a beginning of what is seriously hoped for."

(Quoted in Prayers for the Common Good, edited by A. Jean Lesher, 1998, Pilgrim Press.  Paul Tillich, one of the 20th century's outstanding Christian theologians, preached these words in 1965.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

WRITING THROUGH LIFE

Lately, I think I've gone soft and conservative in my blogging. I can't remember the last time I live blogged (what I'm doing right now), that is, written directly to a post, not crafting something more carefully elsewhere and then pasting it into my blog.  I guess I'm more aware that a few more people are looking over my shoulder at what I write.  I intend that to be the case, but that's not how I started out e-journaling.

Time was when I would write, careless of who might read.  I wrote more for my own entertainment, for spiritual exploration, and for creative expression than anything else.  I still do that, but not as often, and I don't post such to Indy Bikehiker blog as much. Maybe I should return to that.

Remember the song "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool?"  Well, I was blogging when blogging wasn't cool.  I was e-journaling before blogs became an available format.  Some of my friends have been receiving "Grace Notes" (what I now call "Grace Between the Lines") via email since 1996.  I think there was a moment when blogging was quite cool.  But, alas, its cool factor came and went, surpassed by Facebook and Twitter.  And, surely, something else will take the place of these formats.

Still, I blog. It suits me.  It helps me.  And, occasionally, what I write or quote or share helps somebody else.  So, I keep writing.

One of my reasons for writing often and publicly is to work at the craft, to stay current, to exercise the part of my soul from which writing flows, to overcome errors in writing, to try to become more clear and direct when necessary, or less direct and veiled when that would serve well.  Over time, I've lost some of my bluntness.  I've shed some of my excessive verbiage.  I've shortened sentences, reduced adjectives, and intentionally and pointedly broken rules.

I still get lost in the woods when I write--more often than I usually want to recognize.  But working my way out or through a thought is part of the journey.  I don't expect my writing to always be readable or logical or presentable.  But my lost-in-the-woods writing is still vital, at least to me.  In some of those meanderings, I happen onto an insight or phrase or perspective that helps me see differently, to understand more fully, or to appreciate something or someone or some situation better.

By far, not everything I write is worth reading.  But, somehow, it seems important to me to write in a way that isn't just to sell or for an audience.  There's a faithfulness factor.  There's a "find out what's going on inside you" factor.  There's a factor of reflecting what's going on in the world and my reactions and responses to it in the moment.  There's a value (at least to me) in recollecting and contemplating openly and frequently.

So, for those who sometimes read what I write, what you read is not always camera-ready and it is not intended to be.  It's a bit like watching someone work out--not a pretty sight.  Most of what I blog is something in the process, something of an unfinished work, something of an experiment, something I hope to come back to when I have more time.

But will that time ever come?  Whether or not, I'm enjoying writing in these moments and hope to continue to do so.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

WHAT MAKES PEOPLE "REAL?"

In a world of celebrity worship, religious hucksters and grandstanding politicians, can we anymore find real people?

WHAT IS REAL? In a world of unprecedented marketplace craftiness, celebrity worship, grandstanding politicians, religious hucksters, go-along bobble-headedness, and routine petty pretending, I appreciate encountering real people. 

A few years ago, I started a short list of things I observe in what seems to me to be "real" in people.  These are things that seem to me to reveal what in The Velveteen Rabbit is described as “real.” It's an incomplete list, a rough  first draft in the process.  But it is one thing that helps beat back the faux-people cynicism that sometimes threatens to overwhelm me:

NOT ALWAYS RIGHT. Real people are not always right…and can admit it. They admit it to themselves and then to others. Though they may initially assert their rightness in absolute terms and at the top of their lungs, when they discover they are mistaken or not completely correct, they accept the gift of humility.

FORGIVEN AND FORGIVING. Real people live close to forgiveness. That is, they know the value of being forgiven and of being forgiving. They realize that they and others are fallen, frail, faulty. Forgiveness is not an infrequent challenge for them. And it is just that: a genuine challenge that is made possible by grace.

ADDRESSING PRIDE. Real people are in touch with their pride. They know they possess it to a greater or lesser degree. They know that it does not just disappear because they have transcendent spiritual experiences. They learn to recognize and set aside what the old preachers used to name as the pride of race, place, face, and grace.

LOSING AND GAINING. Real people lose…and somehow gain from the experience. They win some. As often, they lose. Although they are as up for challenges as anyone, at some point, winning, getting ahead, one-upsmanship, acquisitional comparisons, etc. ceases to be the end-game.

LIVING THE QUESTIONS. Real people have unanswered questions…and they live them. They do not, or no longer, have their world tied down in neat compartments or the universe summed up in foregone conclusions. They recognize life as dynamic and seek to participate in the ongoing discovery of its mysteries.

NOT SELF-SUFFICIENT. Real people are not self-sufficient. They learn to ask for help and are given the grace to gratefully accept it. And they see value in helping others. They count on friends and need confidants. They recognize the interdependence of life. They move toward neighborliness and healthy dependency.

WALKING WITH A LIMP. Real people know real pain. It conditions them deeply but does not define them. Like pride and anger, they learn to be in touch with their pain. It softens their assessment of themselves, others, and the world. They may move into the future with a limp, but, like Jacob, they also know grace as a constant companion. They may even become wounded healers.

FAITH AND GRACE. Real people don’t wear their faith as a badge…they pray and worship because their lives depend on it. They are not into religious performance or do-goodism. They are into meaning and relationship. Faith is the buoy, compass, and beacon amid continuous change and challenge. Faith grows them toward being fully human, toward wholeness, toward genuine community. In short, it makes them real.

SEEING TO THE HEART. Real people look you in the eye…and somehow see to the heart.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother-wise

A tribute to Becky...and all other moms

I watch Becky mother our children
and I wonder where she got this stuff?
When I married her, she had not trained for it.
She had taken no courses in mothering.
She was a good-looking college girl,
talented and sensitive,
spiritually astute and fun-loving.
But how could I have known
she was mother-wise?

For the four childless years of our marriage
she never let on she had been covertly equipped
to react and respond--catlike--to the needs of a child.
She studied no books and read no manuals
but knew what to do and when to do it
when each of our four children were born.

Mothering, I was to learn, was not just about
bearing an infant, nurturing a toddler,
and
sending a six-year-old off to first grade.
Who knew Becky knew the delicate combination
of discipline and praise,
boundaries and freedom,
careful attention and graceful absence
that encourages children to flourish?

Is there some clandestine school for mothers,
a kind of underground academy,
undetectable by unwitting men, which
reveals the secrets and instills the acumen
for rearing and maturing a child?
Observing my partner over time,
I am convinced it is so.
It is the school of motherly love
and Becky has mastered it with honors.

More readily than me, she will find
a graceful way to let go of each child
as they mature and clamor to leave the nest.
I may anxiously wring my hands, but
she will know when they are ready to
launch hopefully forward in life,
uncannily equipped to invest themselves
to enrich the lives of others.

I tip my hat to the Master of this school,
this unseen college with unwritten curriculum.
And I yield the floor to this masterful student
who graces the lives of our children with
a wisdom, taught or caught, that brings to them
the joy and hope of life.


I wrote this piece about 10 years ago. It still holds true.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

KURT VONNEGUT'S DAYDREAM...AND MINE

"People don't come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God."

Vonnegut is one of Indianapolis' own.  Or, was.  The novelist died in his 80's in 2007.  Though I haven't read all of Vonnegut's work, I appreciate what I have read, as agitating and crude as it can be.  Vonnegut was an iconoclast in the best sense of the word as I understand it. 

For all his rants about being atheist or agnostic, Vonnegut attended an Episcopal church next to New York City's Central Park quite regularly--up until the weeks before his death.

 Recently, this Vonnegut quip appeared on my cell phone via Twitter:

"People don't come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God." 

The quote has recurred in my thoughts ever since.  I found that it's drawn from a sermon, "Palm Sunday," that he shared in 1980.  It seems like one of his context-spanning statements intended to reveal something of his soul and to goad everyone else's. 

Of course, we expect "preachments" when we go to church.  They come with the territory.  But that's not primarily why we go, is it? 

Serving for years as an urban pastor, I've invested a lot of time and energy into "preachments," both in preaching and teaching, both to inspire and to equip, both to challenge and to empower.  I'm not discounting "preachments."  As I go to church each week, I am anticipating spot-on preaching.  For me, sloppy, careless, uninteresting preaching is a huge turn-off.  But I've lived long enough to realize that even great preaching and teaching is not the primary reason we go to church.

I think Vonnegut is right, though until I read his phrase, I would not have articulated the reason I go to church that particular way.  Vonnegut opens the aperture wider than I would have.  But, yes, I can go there; I relate to what he's saying.  More than ever before, I go to church to "daydream about God." 

But that leaves me with a quandary.  In the church services I am usually a part of, there's no room for "daydreaming"--about God or anything else.  Church services are very busy.  They're filled with words.  They're filled with vocal and instrumental music.  They're filled with liturgy and ritual.  They're filled with urgent or suggested expectations for participation and response. 

I imagine all these activities in a church and church service CAN contribute to or lead one to "daydreaming about God," and I hope they do--more frequently than I imagine they do.  But I think they don't lead to "daydreaming about God" very easily or often. 

Maybe the older I get the more these usual and expected activities of worship seem to get in the way.  There was a time in which would have likely equated the presence of God or envisioning God with singing, preaching, scripture readings, prayers and Holy Communion in the gathered congregation.  More lately, I continue to go to church in spite of these and experience God's reality in ways other than these. 

It's not that preaching or singing or liturgy or drama cannot move me.  They can and they do.  But these are no longer necessary for my imagination to be fueled, my sense of transcendence awakened and my realization of God's love to be reaffirmed.  These means of grace remain means of grace, but I am finding the following, also, can be means of grace:

Sitting silently in a sacred place.

Listening to a sacred song being played on an instrument or sung as from one's heart.

Meditating on a portion or story of the Bible, or reading the lyrics of a sacred song.

Reflecting with a few friends about the Kingdom of God related to current events.

Being with people who are crying out and working together for justice and truth.

Walking or riding my bike through the woods and observing nature.

Observing grace at work in people I encounter.

Seeing someone who is earnestly striving academically have a personal breakthrough.

Contemplating how diversely people recognize and respond to their sense of the sacred and of God as they understand God.

Through writing or journaling.

Sometimes, during "preachments," just scribbling a few notes that are triggered by something said in a sermon/homily or that have absolutely nothing to do with what is being proclaimed.

These are some activities that activate and fuel my "daydreaming about God." Some occur within the gathered congregation and official public worship, but most occur outside that sacred time.


I still believe that God is present in a special way in the gathered community.  Would that, as a gathered community, we would make room for more "daydreaming about God."

I'm convinced--and I think Vonnegut was convinced--that "daydreaming about God" will lead to more honest questions, authentic encounters with grace, clearer understanding, greater compassion, and a readiness to act for justice with mercy.

So, go to church--in spite of what you like or don't like.  Go to daydream about God.  Or, go wherever you can daydream about God.  Maybe what you experience or receive will make a difference for your good and for the good of all.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

ACCEPTABLE LOSSES?

Wendell Berry reflects on the violence of killing others as a perpetuated acceptable human value
This is one of Berry's "Sabbaths" poems from his collection, Leavings.
They gather like an ancestry
in the centuries behind us:
the killed by violence, the dead
in war, the "acceptable losses" --
killed by custom in self-defense,
by way of correction, in revenge,
for love of God, for the glory
of the world, for peace; killed
for pride, lust, envy, anger,
covetousness, gluttony, sloth,
and fun. The strewn carcasses
cease to feed even the flies,
the stench passes from them,
the earth folds in the bones
like salt in a batter.

And we have learned
nothing. "Love your enemies,
bless them that curse you,
do good to them that hate you"--
it goes on regardless, reasonably:
the always uncompleted
symmetry of just reprisal,
the angry word, the boast
of superior righteousness,
hate in Christ's name,
scorn for the dead, lies
for the honor of the nation,
centuries bloodied and dismembered
for ideas, for ideals,
for the love of God!

Monday, May 2, 2011

TEN YEARS LATER

Ten reasons militarism in response to 9/11 has missed the mark. It's time for change

So, American military personnel have killed Osama bin Laden.  I watched the breaking news and hours of follow-up analysis and coverage of the spontaneous gatherings of citizens in Washington, D.C. and at Ground Zero in New York City.

Though I imagine most people (myself included) can't quite put a finger on the exact relieving emotion we feel, the eruption of emotion late Sunday night seemed more the glee of violent vengeance than the satisfaction of justice.  The more somber language of politicians and news analysts seemed predictably self-justifying and guardedly self-congratulatory. 

Sunday night's announcement, conversations and images resurfaced a range of lingering thoughts and feelings that I continue to grapple with regarding America's leaders deciding to declare war on Afghanistan and Iraq in reaction to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

It would be a tragic mistake to follow a line of thought that the death of Osama bin Laden justifies everything.  Does it justify the torture, coercion, extreme renditions, dehumanizations and loss of moral integrity?  Does it justify two continuing wars that have thus far caused more than a million military and civilian casualties?  Does it justify the cost of more than a trillion dollars to US taxpayers and a debt and deficit that has led us to the brink of fiscal disaster?  Does Osama bin Laden's death--significantly or symbolically--justify such cost?

Sifting through my thoughts and feelings--many of which you can track by reading the archives of this blog since 2001--I restate below my ongoing concerns in a fresh way.

I am no expert. I am just a concerned citizen who opposed these wars and spoke out publicly against them before they commenced.  Every warning I uttered regarding these wars has come to pass.  I thought President Barack Obama would move to reverse Bush policies and end these wars.  Though saying he is committed to ending them, his Administration has thus far followed similar lines of justifications as GWB.  I regret this and I will continue to advocate with his Administration. 

Here are ten responses to nine and a half years of American military muscle-flexing: 

1. War and militarism was the wrong, irresponsible and ineffective reaction to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.  Instead, a response of a strategic, cooperative, and unprecedented international police action would have not only prevented further attacks, but gained the understanding and support of many who now despise America. The syntax of "war" short-circuits whatever untapped, legitimate international civilian and legal possibilities that exist or could be mustered.

2. The policy of preemptive war, outlined by GWB before attacking Afghanistan and Iraq, is morally indefensible, a reversal of historic American and international standards, and continues to foment excuses and unethical justifications for one group or nation attacking another.  The policy needs to be soundly and utterly denounced and reversed.  President Obama has not yet clearly done so.

3. The oft-repeated phrase "they hate our freedoms," referring to militant Muslim extremists, was wrong, misguided, misleading and incoherent jingoism.  Instead of labeling and name-calling and misidentifying sources of Islamist frustrations with the West, America's leaders could have committed to try to deeply understand--and help all American and Western interests understand--the religious roots of militant Islam, and, understanding, to have ceased unwittingly and repeatedly and often blatantly offending basic Islamist sensibilities.  We are no further down the road to understanding a decade later. Labels persist and anti-Muslim jingoism thrives.

4. Failure to deal in a timely and fair manner with the Palestinian issue fomented militant Islamic terrorism and continues to do so.  As long as Palestinians are perceived to be treated unjustly, militant extremist Islamists will have fuel and new recruits--and well beyond the Middle East region.  But, apparently, Israel seems to be no closer to acting on its promises regarding Palestine then ever.

5. If the attack on Afghanistan was unwise, America's attack on Iraq was completely unjustifiable.  The primary justifications given for attacking Iraq have proven invalid.  In fact, it has become clear that there was a coercive misuse of information and a directive use of misinformation by the Bush Administration regarding rationales for attacking Iraq.  Still, in the face of this, in the face of hundreds of thousands of casualties on every side, and in the face of Americans committing torturous atrocities in the name of freedom, no decision-maker is held accountable, no torture-memo-writer is held responsible, no official is called to justice.  Interesting: we say "justice was done" regarding bin Laden, but there is no justice--or even a pursuit of justice--regarding American atrocities.

6. Americans' elected leaders, by their choice to commit multiple billions of taxpayer dollars to what have become the longest wars in the nation's history, are as responsible for the fragile economic situation our government's spiraling debt is causing as anyone or anything else.  As I write, more billions of taxpayer dollars are flowing to Afghanistan and Iraq and into the profit margins of hundreds of defense contractors and the military sector.  Even as it is celebrated that "combat operations" in Iraq have ended, citizen taxpayers remain indefinitely on the hook for 50,000 troops and 50,000 contracted personnel in Iraq.  Yet, some Congressional leaders have the gall to call unemployed worker compensation extensions and core domestic initiatives irresponsible? 

7. This extended period of war has produced the highest suicide rates and largest number of returning American troops experiencing PTSD on record.  As American troops are still engaged in these wars and the time-frame for PTSD to fully develop and play out is still short, we may well just be experiencing the tip of this iceberg.

8. America's leaders, once vowing never to put America in the position of another Vietnam, have, in fact, done so. We are ever-so-slowly leaving Iraq, but leaving it in a most weakened and fragile and more violent state than it was when we attacked it.  We have no valid end game in Afghanistan, no end in sight, and no way to claim even a moral victory there.  Both regions are more fragile militarily, economically, and in terms of statehood than they were when America attacked them. 

9. These wars were supposed to wipe out terrorists and also "dry up" the sources of terrorism. Neither has occurred.  In fact, these wars and the "war on terrorism" has produced untold numbers of new recruits to terrorism and seeded multiple new reasons and causes for it flourishing in another generation. The promises of rebuilding and compassionate assistance have paled in comparison to what was promised.  In the face of continued American drone air strikes killing Afghani and Pakistani civilians, assistance is hardly registering.

10. The past nine years of war have been disastrous at so many levels and for so many people, it is time and past time to end them without reference to "winning."  America has not won these wars. It is not winning these wars.  It will not win these wars.  Cut the losses, and abandon military involvement.  In the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, America's leaders need a long period of reassessment regarding its integrity and international role.  Let there be an end to American war-making as a solution to problems.  Let other responsible interventions guide international policy as we move into a very changed future--a future that is changed, not because America is weaker, but because America is wiser.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

THE SACRAMENTAL USE OF MONEY

In Dissenter in a Great Society, William Stringfellow offers a remarkable insight on the use of money.

A SIGN OF THE RESTORATION OF LIFE. “Freedom from the idolatry of money, for a Christian, means that money becomes useful only as a sacrament—as a sign of the restoration of life wrought in this world by Christ. If, in worship, human beings offer themselves and all of their decisions, actions, and words to God, it is well that they used money as the witness to that offering. The sacramental use of money in the formal and gathered worship of the church is authenticated, as are all churchly sacramental practices, in the sacramental use of money in the common life of the world.”

FREEDOM FROM THE IDOLATRY MONEY. “The consistent mark of such a commitment of money is a person’s freedom from idolatry of money. That includes not simply freedom from moral dependence upon the pursuit, acquisition, or accumulation of money for the sake of justifying oneself or ones conduct or actions or opinions, either to oneself or to somebody else. It means the freedom to have money, to use money, to spend money without worshiping money, and thus it means the freedom to do without money, if need be, or, having some, to give it away to anyone who seems to need money to maintain life a while longer.”

NOT MY OWN. “The charity of Christians in the use of money sacramentally has no serious similarity to conventional charity but is always a specific dramatization of the members of the Body of Christ losing their life in order that the world be given life. For the members of the church, therefore, it always implies a particular confession that their money is not their own because their lives are not their own, but by the example of God's own love, belong to the world.”

 
GIVING AWAY THE GIFT OF LIFE. “That one’s own life belongs to the world, that one’s money and possessions, talents and time, influence and wealth, all belong to the whole world is, I trust, why the saints are habitu├ęs of poverty and ministers to the outcasts, friends of the humiliated and, commonly, unpopular themselves. Contrary to many legends, the saints are not spooky figures, morally superior, abstentious, pietistic. In truth, all human beings are called to be saints, but that just means called to be fully human, to be perfect that is, whole, mature, fulfilled. The saints are simply those men and women who relish the event of life as a gift and who realize that the only way to honor such a gift is to give it away.”