August 21

Violence Left and Right– Or, Why I Quit Facebook

I’m tired of violence. I’m tired of hate speech. And I’m especially tired of it from people who deny they’re doing it.

Let me start with a proposition: When American young people spat on soldiers returning from Vietnam, that was an act of violent hatred. It didn’t physically injure them. But as we now know, some of the worst wounds a person can endure are not physical. Denying a person their self-respect and pride is an act of violence.

Let’s fast forward this principle to today, in which we look back at those veterans as men and women who did their best in a war that never should have happened and was poorly managed by our government. If I might be so bold, the U.S. fought on the wrong side, and lost. Yet the veterans who answered the call of their government deserve their pride, and they definitely should not be denied self-respect.

As we acknowledge this fact, there’s a movement afoot to take away the pride and self-respect of the descendants of those who fought in another war 150 years ago. That, too, was a war that didn’t need to happen. They fought on the wrong side, and they lost. Their leader, Jefferson Davis, was imprisoned for two years, until northern liberals posted his bail and he was eventually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, along with all others who supported the Confederacy.

It should be noted that there were no trials for treason, in part because there was no judicial precedent that secession was in fact treason– that wouldn’t come until 1869. So some folks now look back and judge the Confederates as treasonous based on law that hadn’t been written at the time of the war.

This has become a pattern for us here in America. Slavery was legal throughout the colonies, with the exception of the Republic of Vermont which joined the Union as the first free state in 1777. Massachusetts became the first state to ban slavery in 1783. It wasn’t banned throughout the northern states until 1820, just 40 years before the war. And the general consensus among northern liberals–including Abraham Lincoln– was that slaves should be freed and shipped back to Africa. Here’s a quote from Lincoln:

“I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people, I as much as any man am in favor of the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Do we really want to judge the South or the North at the time of the Civil War by our current, post-modern standards?

But that’s not the point. The Civil War was rooted in complex causes, like any war. One of those was the economic impact of abolition on the South, especially in the face of lopsided industrialization favoring the North. Yet this was but one facet of how far the federal government could intrude on states’ rights– a battle still being fought today. And at the time, there was nothing in the Constitution that had definitively prohibited secession. That was the ultimate issue on which the South stood: the right to remove themselves from the Union.

They lost. We know this. And they paid. Their leaders were jailed and barred from holding elected office.

But what do we make of the soldiers who fought for them? Does winning or losing change the dedication, the sacrifice, or the amount of blood spilled?

It didn’t to the people of the United States when they dedicated the Eternal Light Peace Memorial 75 years after the war.

But that was a different time, when there was still some level of cooperation between disagreeing perspectives. We no longer live in that America. These days, it’s “We won, so you can suck an egg.” I’m not speaking of just Donald Trump. The same attitude accompanied Barrack Obama and George W. Bush to the White House. Maybe it began under Clinton, when conservatives basically declared all-out war on his presidency. Maybe its roots go back further, to Nixon, when the government was considered by some liberals to be the enemy.

In any case, we’ve become a nation of violence– violent speech and violent action. It’s most obvious among conservatives because they don’t try to hide it. But the not-so-subtle images put forward by too many liberals about gun-toting, ignorant, racist rednecks is equally violent. As I’ve posted before, there are reasons people voted for Trump, and they have nothing to do with race. Just as there are reasons people voted for Clinton, and they have little to do with LGBTQ issues.

But I digress. We have a movement to take away the pride of a group of states. The proponents may see it as a way to address racism, but that’s not how the recipients view it. And if you tell someone that their great-grandfather was a racist piece of trash, how do you think they’re going to react? Are you making friends? Convincing people of your message? If anything, you’re pushing them to the other side.

Enter the white supremacists. They’ve now been given a platform for their own brand of violent speech that they think will gain them sympathy. “Y’all have been told that your ancestors were racist trash!” And maybe they do gain some sympathy. But obviously not among the proponents of removing the symbols of Southern history.

The proponents show up and counter-demonstrate, shouting slogans to drown out the slogans of the white supremacists. Now we have a news event! And the temptation to violence is never far away. Let’s be clear about this: shouting slogans is not a conversation, it’s a battle. Demonstrators and counter-demonstrators were already engaged in violence. Mick Jagger was right: bloodshed is just a shot away.

But that’s what our culture has become. We don’t really care about solutions. We say we do, but our actions say something different. We care about winning; we care about being right. No matter what. And if we inflame our enemies in the process, so much the better– we get to shout that much louder.

Here’s a hint: You don’t end a conflict by engaging in or inflaming the conflict. You end a conflict by finding out what the other side really wants, and you won’t learn that in a soundbite, a slogan, or a protest sign. Nor will you convince them of your position with a soundbite, a slogan, or a protest sign. You don’t get your point across by calling someone an idiot. Does being called an idiot make you want to improve yourself–or lash out at the person who said it? You won’t win friends with insults or attacks on their long-established culture. You win friends by sitting down and talking, even sharing a meal together.

One of my most meaningful friendships is with a couple who are very conservative. They call me a liberal, which I’m not (as my liberal friends will attest), but I don’t hold that against them. Yet we are able to sit and have long, meaningful discussions about politics and other matters. I remember the day I told the gentleman that George W. Bush spent money like a drunken Democrat. His face turned red for a moment. Then he thought about it and said, “You know, if Teddy Kennedy stood up and said that on the floor of the Senate, I’d respect him for it.”

Which brings me to why I quit Facebook. I’ve always struggled with the false sense of community it creates. It doesn’t encourage truthful, meaningful interaction. It encourages soundbites, slogans, and trolls. Over the years, I’ve done my best to be a voice of moderation and reconciliation. But let’s face it: Facebook is a venue for speaking, not listening. Few people bold enough to post a political opinion on Facebook are interested in reconciliation. In that sense, Facebook itself is a medium for violence.

I’ve sought reconciliation for almost all of my adult life. I helped bring about a cease-fire in a civil war. I know a little about bringing people together. But that doesn’t happen on Facebook. It doesn’t happen nearly enough in society at large.

My friend and fellow peace-worker, Shariff Abdullah, predicts that we’re on the verge of a civil war. He may be right. But I think we’re already at war, we just haven’t started shooting yet.

P.S. My posts will still be automatically posted to Facebook, as they are to Twitter and Goodreads, but I’ve stopped checking my Facebook page. If you want to contact me, comment or use the contact form on my blog page.

August 17

Charlottesville and the Lessons of Gettysburg

The aftermath of the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA, continue to rock the country. What happened there, just a short drive away from my home, was unthinkable. But not really.

The demonstrations were reportedly sparked by an effort to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee. Proponents of removing the statue see it as a monument to white supremacy. Opponents accuse them of trying to erase history. The demonstrators who gathered in Charlottesville seemed to support the assertion that the statue is indeed a monument to white supremacy.

That’s unfortunate.

As the debates raged, my family was touring the battlefield at Gettysburg, where three days of fighting produced 51,000 American casualties, almost a third of the soldiers on the field. The Confederates lost, as history tells, us, and the battle is considered the turning point of the war.

There’s more to the story, of course. Lee was a dedicated Union general who opposed the secession of Texas, where he was posted in 1861. It’s important to recognize that the issue of secession wasn’t addressed in the Constitution, and no court case dealt with it until Texas v White in 1869. But Lee didn’t favor secession. He wanted a strong and united Union.

Lee was also a slaveholder, and by some accounts not a good one. But his reason for resigning his commission in the U.S. Army had nothing to do with slavery– he simply could not conceive of being ordered to attack and kill his own friends and family. He struggled with his decision, but eventually decided to side with his people rather than his country. I’m not sure most of us outside the South or the state of Utah can conceive of having to make that choice.

As the Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863, Lee was seen by some Union leaders as invincible. He’d fought an amazing series of campaigns with limited resources. The first day of the battle seemed to support that reputation as Lee crushed the Union lines. However, the Union reformed, and after three days of fighting, Lee failed to break the Union Army. He retreated, and Union General Meade was later criticized for not pursuing him, though at that point both armies were in shambles. The war would continue for two more years, finally ending with the surrender of the last Confederate general, Cherokee Chief Stand Watie and his Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Osage fighters on June 23, 1865, and the surrender of the CSS Shenandoah on November 6, 1865.

Today, the Gettysburg National Military Park is a poignant and tasteful memorial to the Americans who fought and died there. Memorials to the units that fought stand at the positions they were posted. These memorials recognize soldiers from Maine to Florida, and from Virginia to Minnesota.

In 1938, veterans from both sides gathered to dedicate the Eternal Peace Memorial. A Confederate veteran unveiled the statue, and Union troops fired an artillery salute. The base of the monument is inscribed, “Peace forever in a nation united.”

Today, we don’t much look like a nation united in peace. There’s a movement to erase the history of the South. Groups have even threatened to burn Confederate flags and deface Confederate gravestones at the Gettysburg National Military Cemetery. And there’s a counter-movement of white supremacists who take these threats personally.

What happened?

In a recent and unsatisfying discussion with two liberals, one of them presented a singular and simple view of the Civil War: it was about slavery, and therefore the Confederate flag is a racist emblem. The North abolished slavery, the South seceded rather than following suit, we fought a war and beat them. Over and done.

Unfortunately, this is a primitive and, at best, outdated and conservative view of history. Historian Philip Sheldrake calls such linear view of history the “Whig view” (though in actuality I would characterize this gentleman’s view as more of a middle school understanding).

Lee’s own struggle with which side to support shows that nothing was that simple. Lee believed in the Union, despite its actions that would eventually take away his slaves. What he could not do was fight against his own people, his friends and family.

We might also consider the case of Charles Crockett, who was 17 years old when he died at the Battle of New Market in 1864, along with nine of his classmates. He’d been a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute here in the Shenandoah Valley. Was he fighting to protect slavery, or for his state and his people?

It’s easy to say the Civil War was about slavery and racism–and in part, it was. But remember that four slave states and nearly half of Virginia remained loyal to the Union. Virginia first voted to stay with the Union, and didn’t change its mind until after the battle at Fort Sumter. Moreover, says,

Concerned about the loyalty of the border states of Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, the new [Lincoln] administration went so far as to offer the slave states an amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee slavery where it legally existed.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebel states, not in the five loyal slave states and not in Louisiana, which had surrendered. Its purpose was to inflict damage on the rebel economy, not to outlaw slavery.

Yes, the southern states claimed slavery as the issue over which they seceded. But it wasn’t really the issue. As I’ve said before with regard to analyzing conflict, “It’s never about what they say it’s about.” This was a war about how far the Federal government could intrude on states’ rights– and that’s an issue that is still unresolved.

It’s easy to wave the American flag and claim that anyone who opposes it is a traitor. It’s not that simple. California and Colorado defy federal law every day with their tolerance of marijuana. Utah and Idaho have defied federal law on guns. None of them have seceded, though some in California would like to and it looks like they’ll put an initiative to that effect on the ballot next year. (Texas v White, however, says that a state can’t secede “except through revolution, or through consent of the States.”)

But let’s get back to the issue at hand: Why are we so upset about Civil War memorials? Why, 80 years after veterans of both sides declared “Peace forever in a nation united,” are we tearing open old wounds?

Do liberals really believe that Southerners who fly the Confederate flag support slavery? My neighbor, an old Baptist minister, flies it next to an American flag on his motorcycle. He does so not because he’s a racist, but because his ancestors fought and died in what they believed was a fight to protect their liberty. Yes, they lost. So did Vietnam vets, but I would never tell them they can’t be proud of what they tried to do, misguided though our leaders were who sent them there.

I’ve been told (by white people) that “some black people are uncomfortable when they see a Confederate flag.” I’m sure that’s true. But what many black people have told me is that badges and uniforms make them uncomfortable. Racism is not confined to the South, nor exclusively represented by one particular flag.

Is there a history of racism in the South? Yes. The protests by white supremacists make that obvious. And it needs to be productively addressed.

But what do we accomplish by addressing not acts of racism, but the symbols of the sacrifice of people’s ancestors? Will telling someone that 17-year-old Charles Crockett wasn’t a hero, he was just a stupid kid who should have known better, win you any friends? Or will tearing down a stature of one of America’s greatest generals who did a very respectable job even though he fought for the losing side? It’s history. It happened. We should learn from it. If we deny it, we risk reliving it.

Therein lies the problem: we’re not trying to fix things anymore. We’ve become a nation of insults and disrespect. We’ve become a nation that wants to fight, not reconcile. And we surely don’t want to convince or be convinced. While I blame a generation of conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh for starting this, I’m now equally offended by liberal hate speech.

I stood on Oak Ridge, looked down over the fields, and felt the weight of 51,000 American casualties. North and South, they were Americans. Are we going to have to fight some more before we remember that?

I pray we will not.

April 23

Revelation, Part 1: The Context

The Revelation to John is one of the most difficult books in the Bible. It is gory, frightening, and complex. And it has frequently been abused. I recall over 30 years ago, a Christian man I worked with insisted that Babylon, as portrayed in Revelation, was the Soviet Union. He was convinced that the End Times were at hand, and he laid out who all the players were. Thirty years later, the End Times have not come upon us, and the Soviet Union no longer exists.

(I would add here another caveat: If Revelation is about imminent events, which nation do you really think is “Babylon the great… [of whom] all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury” (Rev 18:2-3)? Does that really sound like the Soviet Union or Russia?)

What are we to do with such a complex and disconcerting work? Only now, after reading it multiple times and reading several commentaries on it, do I feel that I am remotely competent to add anything to this question.

The first thing to consider is this: Who was it written for? That makes a difference. Was it written to Christians in 1985? To Christians today? Clearly it was not. It is addressed to “seven churches that are in Asia,” namely what we refer to as Asia Minor, or Turkey. And it was written during the first century, only a few decades after the death of Jesus. We must assume that it had meaning for them, otherwise they would have discarded it. And we must assume that the symbolism John used had meaning for them. In other words, we cannot assume that the images John describes are of nuclear war, for example, There were no nuclear weapons in the first century.

The second thing to consider is this: The book was chosen (admittedly with some disagreement among the early Church fathers) to be part of Scripture. Thus, we must assume that it expresses some form of eternal truth. What was said to those churches in Asia must have something to say to us. Yet it is also clear that its message cannot be that TEOTWAWKI is imminent. If that were the case, its first readers would have been gravely disappointed. It’s now 2,000 years later, and it hasn’t yet happened. Or, alternatively, the world as its current residents knew it has ended multiple times, from the imperialization of Christianity to the fall of Rome, from the Black Death to World War II, from the discovery of penicillin to the universal presence of computers and the internet, and from the rise to the fall of the Soviet Union and its empire.

The third thing to consider is the timeline John offers for the events he describes. This is more difficult, because John mixes his verb tenses confusingly. Consider the following passage (emphasis added):

When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Rev 20:7-10)

Here is a question especially pertinent for literal readers: Is this going to happen, or has it already happened? (Let’s count the verb tenses: 4 future, 2 present, 6 past.) Clearly this cannot be set literally in the past, present, or future unless we claim that John didn’t say what he meant.

We can see a similar conundrum in the Fall of Babylon cycle. The angel announces that “Babylon the Great is fallen” (it has already happened, 18:2), and “in one hour your judgment has come” (it has already happened, 18:10). But there is yet time for her people to come out of her (18:4). The shipmasters “stood far off, and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning” (already happened, 18:17-18), yet the kings “will weep” for her as they stand far off (not yet happened, 18:9-10).

There are two possible approaches to this problem. The first is the “already-but-not yet” view, which many use to describe the Kingdom itself. In other words, it has already happened in God’s view of time , but we haven’t experienced it yet. This view places the events in the eschatological future, beyond our view of history. I see this as the “distant hope” view: that all things will be made right in this world at some point in the far future that we will never live to see.

The second possible approach is one I find more satisfying: the events described take place outside our concept of time. That is, they are eternal; they are continually happening in a cosmological sense. Put another way, they happen not in chronos time, but in kairos time.

As we consider that, let’s look at another passage:

“The second woe has passed. The third woe is coming very soon. Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Rev 11:14-15)

These two verses set a context: God’s Kingdom has been established, even though the woes are not yet over. Does that mean, as in the “already-but-not-yet” view, that the Kingdom is established but we will never see it in our experience of time? Or does it mean that, despite the ongoing woes, God’s Kingdom exists and is perpetually established (and being established)?

As I mentioned above, we must assume that Revelation contains some form of eternal truth, else it would not be part of Scripture. As I read the text, as a writer I am struck by the confusing use of verb tenses, blurring past, present, and future. Respect for the text demands, I believe, that we allow a reason for that blurring. What reason can there be other than that the events John describes are not anchored in time? John is describing not a series of future events, historical or otherwise, but a series of processes that are always in play. The Kingdom has been and is continually being established. Satan has been and is continually being defeated. Judgment has been and is continually being served. Salvation was, is, and will be at hand.

January 2

My First Vision

I didn’t used to be religious. I grew up Episcopalian, and what I learned in Sunday school never seemed to have much relevance to my life. We learned the Bible stories, but not why they were important or what they meant. By age 13, I decided I wasn’t Christian. But I still went to church with my family because I didn’t want to disappoint them. I accepted Confirmation for the same reason, even though I knew I wasn’t being honest.

I struggled with depression and feelings of being outcast by my peers. By 16 years old, I had found drugs. At 17, I got expelled from high school. I also had what I now would say was a religious experience in which I was promised that things would get better, and that if I did what was put before me I would eventually find peace.

Things didn’t get better for a long time. I moved far from my family to Los Angeles, where I could pursue my habits without interference. My habits grew worse. At 25, addicted to heroin, cocaine, and alcohol, I sought help and wound up (after months of struggle) getting sober in AA.

AA strongly suggests seeking God. I didn’t believe in God, but at the same time I couldn’t say I disbelieved in God. I was an agnostic, and I wanted evidence one way or the other. The fact that many times I’d driven home too wasted to see and somehow arrived safely, or that I survived five overdoses, or even that my unbearable obsession for alcohol and drugs had now disappeared, apparently wasn’t sufficient. I tried churches, but didn’t find any that made sense to me. Eventually I became a Buddhist. That led me to do volunteer work in Sri Lanka.

I had another powerful spiritual experience in Sri Lanka when I was 34 years old. At the time, I was thinking about making that country my permanent home. The vision led me to understand that what I would learn in Sri Lanka I was supposed to take home to the U.S., where it would someday be needed. Both of these visions had a common characteristic: they gave me messages about my life, but they gave me no clues about the source of the messages. I remained an agnostic.

But I wanted to understand Christianity. After working with a Catholic priest in Thailand for two months, I could see that there was more to Christianity than I’d seen in my childhood church, or than the evangelists I’d met over the years (some of whom were drunk themselves) had told me. I attended a Catholic university and majored in Theology and Peace Studies. I began hanging out in Campus Ministry, and a nun became my spiritual director. But I still didn’t feel as though I had any evidence for the existence of a God who was present in my life. In 1998, I began to pray, “If there is a God, let me know you.”

This was my quest as, in 1999, the organization I’d worked with in Sri Lanka invited me to help them try to end the civil war there. My first trip witnessed 160,000 people gathering (in the face of political opposition and some fear for safety) to meditate for peace in the capital city in September. During my second trip in December, the rebels had begun an offensive, driving out Sinhalese villagers from what the LTTE considered “their” territory. My team decided to go north to see what these refugees would tell us. We interviewed refugees all day, and that night retired to a compound that our organization ran.

At dusk, the artillery began. It wasn’t a constant barrage, just one shell every five or ten  minutes, landing somewhere to the north of us. Meanwhile, by lamplight because there was no electricity, our local host began telling us stories and showing us photos of what he had seen there. Some of the photos were pretty gruesome. The one that touched me most was of a black lump, which our host said had formerly been a young woman who volunteered as a preschool teacher in one of the villages before the LTTE burned her to death.

In the middle of the night, gunfire erupted outside the compound. I heard machine guns, grenades, and RPGs. I couldn’t sleep through that, so I sat in a chair in the common area in the dark. I was acutely aware that the war was raging outside, and I was powerless to do anything about it. I began to ask, “Why, God, why?”

I got an answer. I saw a net, or a loose cloth, with fibers that stretched infinitely in all directions. Each place the fibers met was an event, and they were interwoven in a way I could not understand. A voice said, “If there was no war, there would be no peacemakers. Blessed are the peacemakers!” At first, I thought I was being told that the war existed for the purpose of calling people to be peacemakers. That seemed horribly cruel. But that was not what it meant. I understood that nothing could happen without God’s consent, and that somehow, in some way far beyond my comprehension, there was a purpose to this war– and it was equally true that we were called to try to end it. And I saw that the ways of God are too incomprehensible for a human mind to grasp.

I want to reiterate that I was at the time coming from a Buddhist perspective in which “evil” can be explained by the Three Poisons: anger, greed, and ignorance. Buddhism doesn’t have a concept of God or Evil. That is a philosophical approach that makes it easier to understand war. Address anger, greed, and ignorance, and the fighting stops. I was comfortable with that. Except we hadn’t yet made any progress.

This idea that the war could somehow be permitted by God went against everything I then believed, and everything I wanted to believe about God. In short, it blew my mind.

I returned to Los Angeles a few days later, but found I could no longer function. I’d graduated by now and was doing accounting work to support myself, but I couldn’t work. I couldn’t carry on a conversation. And I couldn’t explain what had happened. I felt like I’d plugged my 110-volt computer into a 10,000-volt main line, and every circuit was fried.

I didn’t realize at first that part of my distress stemmed from Post Traumatic Stress. I had seen and heard violence and stories of violence that I could not accept. Over the next 15 years, I would undergo various types of therapy for PTSD before I gained some measure of recovery from it.

But I also couldn’t reconcile the fact that I, an agnostic, had prayed to know God, and God had revealed himself to me in a powerful and disruptive way. The line from the T.S. Eliot poem, “Journey of the Magi,” haunted me: “No longer at ease in the old dispensation…” That was me.

I’ll tell you the truth: I ran away. I tried to put as much distance as I could between myself and that experience– between me and God. By 2004, I had given up peace work and moved to rural Utah to make cheese in the middle of nowhere. I dabbled in Christian theology that was based on the teachings of Jesus but had no room for God to be present. God had terrified me, and I wanted no part of him.

But if God wants you to go to Ninevah, chances are you’re going to Ninevah. Just ask Jonah.

In 2012, my second marriage ended, and my fiancee got pregnant. I was ecstatic. I didn’t have any children of my own. I couldn’t wait to hear the baby’s heartbeat. But when we went for the first ultrasound and they put the machine on her, there was no heartbeat. She was miscarrying. In moments, I went from ecstasy and anticipation to despair. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. Then my friend Dave, who’d been undergoing experimental treatment for liver cancer that the doctors said was working, went for a liver transplant, after which he was supposed to be fine. But when they opened him up, they found the treatment hadn’t worked after all. He was full of cancer. They sent him home to die. Once again, hope was crushed into despair. I blamed God. I raged at him. I shouted at him. I demanded to know what kind of God he was.

In doing so, I stopped denying him.

This began my slow journey to becoming a Christian. I started going to church later that year (though my home church was in Denver, 8 hours away). In 2013 I was baptized. In August 2016, I finally accepted forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

The journey wasn’t easy. My wife and I struggled through demonic oppression, mental and physical illness, and financial hardship. Trusting God wasn’t always easy. But that’s what it took for me to be ready. That’s what it took for me to surrender to this simple truth: He is God, and I’m not.

Now the great theological question: Do we have free will? Absolutely. Then how is it that everything that happens is consistent with God’s plan? I don’t know, you’d have to ask him. Maybe you’ll understand better than I do. But I now accept that to be true. The Bible confirms it. Just read the Book of Job (particularly 1:6-12, 38:1-4, 40:6-9, and 42:1-6; see also Lamentations 3:37-38). This paradox is hinted at by Isaac Bashevis Singer’s famous saying: “We must believe in free will. We have no choice!”

Did my wife have a miscarriage so that I would find God? Yes. No. Maybe. Partly. The answer is too complex for me to say with any certainty. My human mind can’t possibly comprehend.

A wise man once said, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake.”

I used to think he was wrong.

November 4

You (Yes, You) Can Help Defeat ISIS!

ISIS wants us to hate Muslims. In fact, ISIS needs us to hate Muslims. And it’s in our nature to want to blame all Muslims for ISIS and similar organizations. But there are important reasons we should resist that urge.

Lately I’ve attended a number of gatherings about “interfaith relations” – which seems to be code for “the Muslim question.” There have been parallels cited from WWI, in which aliens of German origin were forced to register and, in thousands of instances, were arrested. And of course, in WWII Japanese, German, and Italian aliens were expelled or subject to internment. Japanese resident aliens and Japanese-Americans were by far the most numerous, and are also the most publicized.

Many Christians argue that this was wrong, that thousands of innocents suffered based on the risk that a small number might be a security risk. There seems to be little evidence that internment actually did any good. And the question might be asked, did the ill-will generated actually harm our nation in the long run?

But there’s another, far more practical aspect of these actions: Did internment help or hinder the enemy nations from which these residents originated? Was the German or Japanese war effort affected in any meaningful way by our interment of their citizens? I don’t think so. The internment decision was a moral one based on fears that appear in hindsight to have been unfounded. Internment had no real effect on the war itself.

Times have changed. Our nation’s enemy combatants are no longer nations. They are terrorist groups, paramilitary organizations that seek influence rather than territory or resources. We can’t easily find them, but we need to react against someone. So we react against the people our enemies claim to represent. But what worked against Nazi Germany will not work against ISIS. In fact, it’s what they want us to do.

The majority of Muslims have no interest in supporting ISIS or any other extremist group, any more than the majority of Christians support the KKK or Timothy McVeigh. ISIS wants to change that. And the most powerful tool they have is making Muslims hated by everyone else.

Think about this: if ISIS can get us angry enough to turn on Muslims in general, where will those Muslims turn for support? If ISIS can get us to take actions that make Muslims hate us, ISIS’s message is going to sound more palatable. If we hate Muslims, we’re helping ISIS. It’s what they want. It’s what they need. It’s what every terrorist leader dreams of.

ISIS, and all organizations like it, have a strategy: They attack us. We get angry. We retaliate against Muslims. ISIS gains support.

The bad news is, there’s no military response to a war like this. (Unless we’re willing to commit genocide.) Any military action helps our enemy. Remember Al Queda? They used to be a few guys hiding in caves, planning attacks. After we attacked Iraq, Al Queda became one of the most powerful paramilitary groups in the world.

What eliminated Al Queda was not military action, but intelligence (in the broader governmental sense). Leaders were identified and eliminated. Unfortunately, our government often killed civilians in the process, which created more enemies just waiting for new leaders.

Whether a government can conduct surgical strikes precise enough to eliminate terrorist leaders without harming civilians is a question I can’t answer. But there’s an alternative (and necessary) approach we haven’t taken often enough.

Terrorists are disempowered when we refuse to hate the people they want us to hate. Yes, they’ll try again. Yes, there’s a price for that. But in war, there always is. Doesn’t it make sense to prevent new enemies rather than having to fight them?

ISIS needs us to hate Muslims.

Don’t fall for it.


August 18

The Spiritual Journey – Part 1

My spiritual journey began, I suppose, the day I realized I didn’t believe in the God my parent’s church talked about. I was thirteen years old at the time, depressed, and certain that there could be no God or He would have helped me. I became an atheist, searching for answers in the realms of politics, eastern religions, and psychedelics.

I found few answers, and my focus gradually changed to alcohol, stimulants, and opiates, as well as literature (and music) about those same topics. Eventually, miserable and afraid that death had forgotten me, I got sober.

The Twelve Step program insisted that I search for God as an answer to my addictions.  I didn’t know how to search. For a while, it was enough to accept God as mysterious, unknown force that removed my obsession to drink and use. But the time came when I was forced to enlarge my spiritual life. I scanned the Yellow Pages for churches.  (This was long before Google.)  I tried several, including one that promised heavy metal music and long hair. Nothing fit.  They wanted me, at this point an agnostic, to accept that Jesus dies for my sins so I could go to Heaven. I barely believed in Jesus, felt that my sins were beyond forgiveness, and had no interest in everlasting life.

I stumbled into a Buddhist temple one day, and immediately became fascinated. They didn’t tell me what to believe. They said, in essence, “Do this, and you will see what the truth is.”  That I could do.

I studied Buddhism for several years. But again, something was missing. The “truth” they spoke of had to do with my personal salvation. But everything in me cried out for more. There were so many people in the world suffering from injustice, how could there not be an answer in this world as well as the next? (There couldn’t. But I’ll come back to that later.)

I began to pray to a God I didn’t believe in, “If there is a God, let me know You.”  And, as a corrolary, I imagined if there was a God, what would He want me to do.  This led me to volunteer in Sri Lanka and Thailand, helping the poor and hoping to learn something that would make me more useful to those the global economy had overlooked.

In Thailand, I worked with a Catholic priest whose motto was, “Preach the Gospel always; use words when necessary.” He dedicated his life to helping the poor, most of whom were Buddhists. And he opened the door to God for me in a way no one else had. I actually took communion for the first time in two decades.

When I returned to the U.S., I attended a Jesuit university, where I majored in Theology.  I still didn’t consider myself a believer, but I wanted to understand the Bible and somehow make sense out of it. My Old Testament professor, a Quaker, showed me that the focus of the Old Testament is not outlining various sins of individual behavior, but structuring a society that is fair to the poor. He pointed out, for example, that homosexuality is condemned once, while greed and injustice are condemned hundreds of times. Meanwhile my New Testament professor, a Jesuit, began his class with Jesus declaring in Mark, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”  This made sense to me, and I began to believe in the teachings of Jesus, at least as they applied to this world.

As for God, I remained an agnostic. I literally didn’t know. Then, in 1999, I joined a group in Sri Lanka that was trying to end the decades-long war. My work took me int a war zone, where I felt that I came face-to-face with God. My prayer from so long ago had finally been answered.

But I didn’t like what I saw. My vision asked me to believe in the rightness of things. My peace work, it suggested, was right. And so was the war. In some vast architecture beyond my comprehension all this fit together in the Mind of God. Having seen the suffering the war caused to good people, and to children, I couldn’t accept that.

Later I moved to Utah and began making artisan cheese.  I gave up peace work. I gave up volunteer service. Yes, I was suffering from PTSD as a result of my experiences. But I was also running from God. I wanted to seek Him, but I was terrified because of what He’d shown me. So I hid for twelve years.


July 19

I Met Rosa Parks on the Bus

I spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka between 1993 and 2007.  It was a nation at war, which pitted the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL).  The LTTE claimed it wanted a separate homeland for the Tamil people.  In reality, it just wanted to control the Tamils.  The GOSL claimed it wanted to make peace with the Tamil people.  In reality, they mostly just wished the Tamils would go away.

Tamils, especially those in the east which had many cultural differences from the LTTE strongholds in the north, were caught in the middle with no one to turn to.

Fighting was fierce in the East for many years.  In 1998, the government announced it had taken control of Batticaloa District, and I decided to make a trip to this city that had never been safe before.

As it turns out, it wasn’t safe in 1998, either.  The government lied about the extent of its control.  In fact, it controlled three quarters of the city, and it controlled the major roads during daylight hours.  The countryside was still firmly in the grip of LTTE control.  But I didn’t know that until I got there.

My first challenge was to figure out how to get there.  No one knew.  Few in the Sinhalese parts of the country had any interest in going.

I took a bus from the Pettah market in Colombo to Mahiyangana, about two-thirds of the distance.  The Mahiyangana bus was late, and I missed the connection to Ampara and had to spend the night.  Mahiyangana looked like a cowboy town, South Asian style.  The streets were dusty, and the buildings were made of wood and not very sturdy.  Police, troops, and others not in uniform roamed the streets with guns.  And, despite the strong Muslim and Tamil (Hindu) presence, a Buddhist temple at the center of town blasted Buddhist chants through a loudspeaker at an ear-splitting volume.

I caught the morning bus, which left two hours late.  But I had no idea the journey I was in for.  As we approached the Eastern Province, we started passing through checkpoints.  At each checkpoint, everyone on the bus had to get off, pass through security, answer questions, and reboard the bus.  Meanwhile, soldiers with AK-47 machine guns searched the bus for anything suspicious.  We passed through a total of ten checkpoints.  There were no stops between most of the checkpoints, so no one had gotten off or on since the last one.  The same people got interviewed and the same luggage got searched ten times!  Lucky for me, because I was a foreigner, after the third stop they told me I didn’t have to get off the bus at the checkpoints anymore.

Most Tamils do not speak Sinhalese, and most Sinhalese, including the soldiers, do not speak Tamil.  All communication occurred through the bus conductor, a Tamil who also spoke Sinhalese.  I never learned Tamil, but I could follow his Sinhalese explanations.

Two seats in front of me sat a young Tamil woman, probably in her late twenties.  The soldiers payed her extra attention, perhaps because she was good looking.  I had learned from their questioning that the woman was a nurse at the government hospital in Batticaloa who had been to Colombo for training and was now returning home.

At the sixth checkpoint, something happened.  I stayed behind as the passengers got off the bus.  So did the nurse.

The soldiers with their AK-47s boarded the bus to search the luggage for the sixth time.  They looked at me and nodded.  Then they looked at the nurse.

“Why is she not getting down off the bus?” one asked the conductor.

The conductor translated the question for the nurse, and then translated her answer for the soldiers.

“She says she’s tired,” he said, “and she’s done getting down off  the bus.”

I held my breath.  Here was a Tamil woman defying two armed soldiers at a security checkpoint in a country where people, especially Tamils, disappear regularly.

The one soldier looked at the other.  They paused.  Then they shrugged and began searching the luggage.

I could not believe what I had just witnessed.  The nurse had defied authority and won.

She didn’t get off the bus at any of the remaining checkpoints.

I continued on to Batticaloa.  The city is located on an island, and in those days only one bridge was open for access.  We passed under a concrete emplacement bristling with weapons as we crossed it.  I found my hosts and spent the next three days meeting people.  I met a Sinhalese woman who had left her family and learned Tamil so she could counsel families of the missing and disappeared.  I sat with her as a Tamil woman brought in a medical report on her husband, who had been severely tortured while in custody.  I met a man who had been kidnapped by the LTTE and held for ransom.  I met an American priest who had spent decades in the area, and who served the people fearlessly ignoring both combatant parties.  And I met kids who had lost legs, arms, and eyes from grenades, landmines, and booby traps.  One, a fourteen-year-old boy, had two primitive rubber hands.  When I asked him what his plans for the future were, he smiled a huge smile and told me, “I’m training to become a tailor!”

My trip to Batticaloa left indelible images in my mind.  But one of the most poignant is of a young woman who refused to get off the bus because she was tired.

July 17

Hospitality: The Cure for Violence

Our guest pastor today made a bold statement.  She called the recent attacks of violence in our country and around the world striking examples of the failure to provide hospitality.

I wrinkled my brow when I heard it.  She’d been discussing Lydia (Acts 16) and her offer to have Paul and his companions stay at her house.  How, I wondered, does that prevent violence?

Then I realized: Too often, violence here at home is committed by lone gunmen who are social outcasts.  Too often, violence against us from overseas comes from miserably poor people whose countries we have manipulated away from democracy.  We have not been a hospitable people to those who most need it.

Last night, I was talking to friend who served in the Army.  I asked him, “Do we have any enemies today that we didn’t create ourselves?”

He thought for a long moment.

“I can’t think of any,” he said.

Is that too harsh?  I don’t think so.  Let’s take Iran, for example.  In 1951, Mohammed Mossadegh became prime minister, promising many pro-poor reforms in a nation in which nearly all wealth had previously gone to the royal family.  In 1953, when Mossadegh tried to renegotiate oil prices with BP, the CIA overthrew the government and installed the Shah.  Thirty years of oppression followed.  And many Iranians judged the U.S. to be hypocritical for claiming to support self-determination, but denying it to Iran.

We still claim to support self-determination.  Yet we also wonder why Iran hates us so much.

Then there’s Iraq.  Ohio State University describes U.S. relations with that country 1965-1979 in dismal terms:

U.S. leaders showed little support for democracy in Iraq or the advancement of its people, eschewing any such liberal political goals on behalf of the primary objective of keeping Iraq free of communism.

Following the brutal seizure of power by Saddam Hussein in 1979, the U.S. began (in 1982) to support Saddam because he opposed Iran.  Arms and aid flowed freely.  George H.W. Bush blatantly ignored Saddam’s gross human rights violations as he courted Iraq’s loyalty prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  A U.S. call to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims to rebel against Saddam received no support, and the rebellion was put down brutally, strengthening Saddam’s position.

Following George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2001, the official policy of the U.S. government was that nation-building was not part of the strategy.  As a result, post-Saddam Iraq fell into chaos and violence.  It wasn’t until 2008 that Bush changed his opinion and admitted that a policy of spontaneous democracy wasn’t working.

Here we have a nation whose people we had ignored or betrayed, whose dictator we supported, and in which we allowed chaos to rule for seven years.  Is it coincidence that it was during this period of chaos, in this nation whose people we so badly failed, that ISIS emerged with virulent anti-American views?

Here is something I learned in Sri Lanka.  People who are desperate, who cannot support their own families, and who see no hope, will do anything to ensure that their children survive.  The vast majority of soldiers in Sri Lanka came from the extremely poor areas of the deep south where development was lacking, and which had largely been ignored by the government.  And the vast majority of LTTE cadres and suicide bombers were from extremely poor villages of the northern jungles which had likewise been ignored by the government.  Hopelessness leads to desperation, and those who promote violence prey on desperation.  Note well that Velupillai Prabhakaran, head of the LTTE, never blew himself up.  He found desperate people to do it for him.  The same is true for Osama bin Laden and Al Queda, and Abu Akr al-Baghdadi of ISIS.

There are studies showing that poverty does not cause terrorism.  But many experts agree that poverty is an undeniable factor, even if statistics don’t agree.  Probably this is because there are so many desperately poor people, nearly half the world’s population, who are not terrorists.  It takes a particular combination of desperation, anger, and motivation to cause someone to become a terrorist, and that combination is (thankfully) not universal.

Not all desperately poor people are terrorists, but most terrorists are desperately poor people.

Similarly, not all loners commit mass shootings, but most mass shooters are loners.

Do you see the connection yet?

If we want to stop terrorism, we need to give people hope to replace desperation.

If we want to stop mass killings, we need to reach out to the loners so they are no longer alone.

There’s not much we can do individually to change our government’s foreign policy from supporting dictators, no matter how friendly, to spending that money to help the people who need it.  I wish I could suggest voting for a certain candidate, but both of the two major candidates are likely to continue the current policy.  Just last week, Trump praised Saddam Hussein and said we should have kept him in power.  Truth really is stranger than fiction.  Meanwhile, Clinton’s hawkish nature stems, according to one aide, from “a textbook view of American exceptionalism” that the New York Times describes as far to the right of most Democrats. Both candidates will likely pursue policies that are ultimately detrimental to our national security.  They will create even more enemies.

But there’s a great deal we can do individually here at home.  We can become a hospitable people.  We can invite the newcomers and the loners into our home for a meal and a chat.  We can do it more than once.  We can look for common ground, and empathize with their struggles.  And when they say things that we disagree with, and they will, we can treat them with understanding and compassion.

That’s a tall order.  But how far would you go to stop the violence?

December 14

Life During Wartime

My parents remember World War II, during which nearly 12 million Americans served overseas.  Out of a population of 133 million, 9% were in the military in 1945.  This caused huge social and economic displacements.  To support them, supplies to civilians were rationed.  Meat, cheese, sugar, and coffee were all rationed, as were tires, fuel oil, and shoes.  The sacrifice of this monumental effort was felt throughout society.

I grew up as the Vietnam War was expanding.   I used to sneak downstairs to peek around the corner and watch the Huntley-Brinkley newscast because I liked the theme music (the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 9th).  One of my pivotal memories is, at five years old, seeing rows of flag-draped coffins on the black-and-white TV.  I didn’t understand what was happening, and I couldn’t ask my parents because I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I knew something really bad was going on.  The Vietnam War, undertaken against our own experts’ advice and badly executed, also had a monumental impact on society, dividing those who served from those who viewed soldiers as symbols of a government’s failing policy.  I was less aware of the Kent State shooting when I was ten years old, but well aware of the controversy over the draft as I entered my teens.

Ironically, it was during this period that President Johnson declared his War on Poverty, which reduced the poverty level by 38% over eight years.  This metaphorical use of the word “war” would affect our society in different but perhaps greater ways.  Since that time, we’ve engaged in a War on Drugs (1971-Present) and a War on Gangs (2005-Present).  We’ve waged war on cancer, AIDS, and obesity.  Then there’s the War on Terror (2001-Present), which has permeated our lives and consciousness for almost 15 years.  More recently, politicians have accused each other of waging War on Women, War on Energy, War on Religion, War on Jobs, and War on Working Families.  Television shows now include “Storage Wars” and even “Cupcake Wars.”

Apparently, we are a nation at war.  But not really.  Even the War on Terror cannot be compared with wars we’ve fought in the past.  About 1.4 million people now serve in the U.S. military, only 0.4% of our population.  Just over 5,200 American troops have been killed in battle since 2001.  That ranks the War on Terror (including Iraq and Afghanistan) slightly above the Philippine-American War of 1899.  (Haven’t heard of that one?  I hadn’t either.)  We’re a far cry from 53,000 killed in Vietnam, or 290,000 killed in World War II.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying our soldiers don’t go through hell and make appalling sacrifices discharging their duties in the field.  They do.  I’m saying the rest of us don’t.  There’s been an ammunition shortage in civilian markets caused by billions of rounds being fired overseas, about 300,000 rounds per insurgent killed, causing the Pentagon to buy ammunition from Israel because domestic manufacture can’t keep up. Otherwise, there’s very little effect on us here at home.  We aren’t rationed.  We aren’t drafted.  Taxes are low.

But we’re at war.

We’ve shifted from “total war,” in which an entire nation mobilizes to defeat an enemy, to constant war, in which only persistent rhetoric from politicians reminds us that we even have an enemy.

James Childress warns, “In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war.”  We’re being reminded how to hate an enemy, but sheltered from what war really means.  And after 15 years without victory, it would seem that either our leaders don’t know how to win this war, or they don’t want to win it.  Clearly there are advantages to continuing a war that we at home don’t really notice.

But what will the long term cost be?  The power vacuum left  as we destroyed governments in the Muslim world has led to the rise of new and innovative enemies.  ISIS was unknown in 2001, but is now prominent and growing.  Iran has used our intervention to strengthen its presence throughout the region and support other militant groups.  How long will it be before we have a real enemy with whom to fight a real war? And are we really prepared for that?  We talk of being a nation at war, but is that what we really want?  Or can we imagine, now that our major enemies are gone, becoming a nation at peace?

As we contemplate that question, let us never forget that this is what war really looks like after just one battle.  Personally, I vote for peace.

Henri-Chappelle American Cemetery in Belgium, where 17,000 American soldiers were buried after the Battle of the Bulge. Photo taken in 1945.