What Does Justice Ask of Us? What Does God?

April 19, 2015

On AFSC’s Acting in Faith blog this morning is a piece I wrote about the the recent controversy over a religious freedom law in Indiana. Here’s how it begins:

“Always do the right thing as you know it.” I wrote that on an index card for my young son a few years ago. It is one of three. The other two, still on his mirror, read “Always tell the truth” and “Always be kind.” These are simple urgings for me, as well; I believe they are part of what God asks of me.

But what happens when what I think is right conflicts with what someone else thinks is right? The eruption of controversy over religious liberty in Indiana and Arkansas puts that question on my mind.

Read more here.


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Silence — or Stillness — as a Spiritual Discipline

April 14, 2015

A good friend who is spiritually experienced and wise but not a Friend recently asked me about the Quaker practice of silent worship. Here’s what I wrote back:

Wandsworth Friends Meeting, UK

Wandsworth Friends Meeting, UK

For many Friends, myself included, stillness is a better term for what we are talking about than silence.  Psalm 46, in a passage Quakers like, says “Be still and know that I am God.”  We Friends don’t seek to be silent; rather, we seek to wait upon God, to hear what God is saying to us and sometimes through us. Hence, in the stillness, we are occasionally surprised to find ourselves compelled to speak. (And hence, early Friends, at times quaking before they rose to speak, were derided as Quakers.  Friends accepted this term.)

Stillness is a spiritual discipline (like Mass, like walking the labyrinth, like fasting, like praying, like hymn singing, etc.). Friends don’t see it as a tradition, but rather as an essential practice for their worship together. While other Christians, even early followers of Jesus, knew the use of stillness in worship, it was mostly practiced among monastic orders in recent centuries. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism (if there is one) was a literate if unschooled young man in the mid-17th century who found himself full of questions. He took those questions to various authorities of his day and found their answers not helpful. One day, on a spiritual retreat at a place called Pendle Hill, he heard a voice saying “There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition.” In that epiphany, Fox realized that Jesus could and would speak directly to each of us if we will just still ourselves and listen. Revelation, he realized, is a continuing thing, not something finished and boxed in a book two millennia ago.

Continuing revelation is thus a core belief of (most) Friends. From this also comes Friends’ sturdy conviction about equality (men and women, black and white): all may hear what God is saying to us, and in that divine capacity we are equal one to another.

From their beginnings, Friends have been especially fond of the Gospel of John. Among the reasons are those majestic, puzzling opening words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Before the Bible, before Jesus lived, before time, before everything, was the Word. And we can hear that Word if we will still ourselves and listen.

Lastly, a personal note. In my teens I wanted going to church to be a deeper, more meaningful experience, but the more I tried to say the words that I was asked to say (creeds, prayers, hymns, responsive readings) the more distance I felt. Those were not my words; I could not give them my full assent. While gathering in stillness didn’t come easily to me as a spiritual practice, I found it more satisfying than going to a conventional worship service. Occasionally going to a Quaker meeting I would hear an unplanned message that was truly amazing: fresh, clear, energized, piercing. Those moments were not made less potent for me by the more numerous ordinary messages I also heard in Meetings. Gradually I realized that the way of gathering in silence was the spiritual discipline for me.

I don’t for a moment believe it is good for everyone as their main spiritual practice.  I know that it is for some (like me), and small doses of it are pretty good for everyone.

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This Was the Winter That Was, in Boston

March 18, 2015

Boston snow 2015


Courtesy of the National Weather Service and Dave Epstein, a fabulous weather guy


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“Pay Any Price:” The Terrible War on Terror

March 16, 2015

JamesRisen“A decade of fear-mongering has brought power and wealth to those who have been the most skillful at hyping the terrorist threat. Fear sells. Fear has convinced the White House and Congress to pour hundreds of billions of dollars — more money than anyone knows what to do with — into counterterrorism and homeland security programs, often with little management or oversight, and often to the detriment of the Americans they are supposed to protect” (p 203).

Those sentences neatly sum up the central thrust of  Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War (Houghton Mifflin, 2014), James Risen’s stunning report on the ‘War on Terrorism.’  He adds, “Fear is hard to question. It is central to the financial well-being of countless federal bureaucrats, contractors, subcontractors, consultants, analysts and pundits. Fear generates funds.”

The phrase “pay any price” was first uttered to indicate national determination in the face of a real threat. Risen takes the phrase to be cynical and hollow: the United States is being looted by what is done in the name of the ‘War on Terror.’ Moreover, unchecked power is being amassed, and secrecy and the invasion of privacy have come to dominate.

The book laces together several years of Risen’s reporting on the ‘War on Terror,’ much of which first appeared in the New York Times. (Earlier, Risen had published State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Free Press, 2006.) Most of this book’s argument is carried not by broad-banner claims but by detailed cases of profiteering, indefensible torture, invasion of privacy and unchecked power. “Greed,” “Power” and “Endless War” are the book’s main sections Risen uses to assemble his account.

Here are a few more topic sentences to give you a sense of the case Risen draws together:

“America has become accustomed to a permanent state of war. Only a small slice of society — including many poor and rural teenagers — fight and die, while a permanent national security elite rotates among senior government posts, contracting companies, think tanks, and television commentary, opportunities that would disappear if America was suddenly at peace. To most of America, war has become not only tolerable but profitable, and so there is no longer any great incentive to end it (p xv).”

Today, at least $11.7 billion of the approximately 20 billion the Coalition Provisional Authority ordered sent to Iraq from New York is either unaccounted for or has simply disappeared (p 19).”

“Far more than any other conflict in American history, the global war on terror has been waged along free market principles. … From Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia, American counterterror operations have relied heavily on outside contractors to provide intelligence and logistics. As a result, the tenets of twenty-first century American capitalism have become the bywords of twenty-first century American combat. That includes the catchphrase of the global financial crisis — ‘to big to fail’ (p 142).”

“Before the war on terror, the U.S. military had a well-earned reputation for the humane treatment of prisoners of war. … During the post[WWII]war years, the United States was a driving force behind the 1949 Geneva Conventions, codifying the rights of prisoners in armed conflict. … Bush’s decision to abandon the Geneva Conventions changed everything” (p 168).

“The American archipelago of terror…was built on a myth. It was a myth built despite strong evidence to the contrary. It was as a myth enabled by a community of supposed experts, many of whom now admit they knew better…. Like many myths throughout history, its real resonance came from the fact that it helped powerful men justify what they wanted to do” (p 176). [The myth is the claim that the United States could torture prisoners, denying what we did was torture, and gain useful intelligence from that torture. We knew not only that it was wrong but that it would not work.]

“Despite the professional consensus among psychologists that torture was counterproductive, the American Psychological Association, the largest professional organization for psychologists, worked assiduously to protect the psychologists who did get involved in the torture program” (p 194).

“One of the most baleful consequences of the toxic combination of fear and money in the post 9/11 era has been the constriction of the physical landscape of the United States. Freedom of movement–one of the greatest attributes of life in the expanse of the United States–has been curtailed” (p 203).

“America remains on combat footing in the global war on terror, without realizing that the war that was declared after 9/11 is all but over. The main adversary in that war, Osama bin Laden, is dead, and al Qaeda is broken. What is left are shattered remains and splinter groups” (p 216).

The book’s final chapter closes with this chilling thought, again told largely through specific instances:

“Of all the abuses America has suffered at the hands of the government in the endless war on terror, possibly the worst has been the war on truth. On the one hand, the executive branch has vastly expanded what it wants to know: something of a vast gathering of previously private truths. On the other hand, it has ruined lives to stop the public from gaining any insights into its dark arts, waging a war on truth” (p 230).

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A Fly on Water

March 4, 2015

Fly on Water Surface

© Uwe Hennig, Germany

Shortlist, Split Second, Open, 2015 Sony World Photography Awards

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Learning to Kill

March 2, 2015

sniper GettyImages_140238116I was very moved by an op-ed in the Sunday New York Times Sunday Review section titled How We Learned to Kill. It was written by Timothy Kudo, “a Marine captain and graduate student at New York University who was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011.” In a way it is a bookend to James Fallows’s Chickenhawk Nation piece. Where Fallows talks about how most of us are not paying attention to endless war and what that shallow, fawning regard we consequently have for the military does to our national character, Kudo talks about how those who are in the military learn to focus intensely on killing in combat and what that does to you. It is a sad and troubling piece.

Kudo focuses on the uncertainties of the kinds of war we are fighting today. Are those two men militants or farmers? Are they tending their fields or planting an IED? Should we shoot them? With those uncertainties and in the fog of war, mistakes are inevitable. How do you learn to live with that–with the killing of innocents, however well-intentioned the killing? Those are his questions.

Kudo was a young man when he became an officer. He talks about learning to give the command to kill, realizing that usually the decision when it came was his alone to make. He recounts how he had first to learn how to kill by himself, with knife and gun. He could not be entrusted with commanding others to kill until he was seen as willing to be the killer himself.

For me, the hardest and also truest part of Kudo’s account concerns his motivations for killing, and what he thought were the motivations of those attempting to kill him.  “The longer I lived among the Afghans, the more I realized that neither the Taliban nor we were fighting for the reasons I expected.” He says “The more I thought about the enemy, the harder it was to view him as evil or subhuman.” He realized that most of the Taliban fighters were “too young and too isolated to understand anything outside of their section of the valley.” They weren’t fighting for religious or ideological reasons, they fought because “that’s what they always did when foreigners came to their village.” He adds, “Perhaps they just wanted to be left alone.”

As to his own motives, Kudo says that the ‘big’ reasons he had “internalized from the newspapers back home,” the ‘war on terror’ reasons, gave way to this new understanding of the enemy. “I ended up fighting for different reasons once I got on the ground–a mix of loyalty to my Marines, habit and the urge to survive.” And this recognition: “If someone is shooting at me, I have a right to fire back. But this is a legal justification, not a moral one.”

Not a new thought but one that will stay with me from Kudo’s account: “Perhaps they just wanted to be left alone.”

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Did I Serve? I’ve Never Been Under Fire

February 24, 2015

There’s a certain luster in having served in the military. Members of Congress like to claim it, journalists, too, even when these claims don’t turn out to be accurate. Having served in an elite branch of the military or been under fire only increases the luster.

There’s a heroic glow to combat, a stature that comes with participation in violence.

I take this to be a feature of the Chickenhawk Nation that James Fallows talks about in the Tragedy of the American Military. Most of us don’t serve—don’t care to serve—so we give ourselves a free pass by ‘honoring’ those who did serve, even if the honor accorded is cheaply given.

We’re seeing this play out in a series of mini-scandals over false claims. No, Brian Williams never came under fire during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. No, Bill O’Reilly never faced combat. No, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Chief Robert McDonald didn’t serve in the Special Forces. Each has claimed a status never earned.

The truthfulness of such claims by journalists or government officials are worth taking seriously.

But let’s also consider whether we want to pay this homage to war. Are these our principal heroes, those who participate in violence? I would rather we especially honor those who enrich life and seek peace. I like the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that begins “I shall die, but that is all I shall do for Death.”

For the record, I applied for recognition as a conscientious objector, was denied (reasons not given), and twice refused induction into the military. I was arrested but never tried. I’m reluctant to say I never served; I’d rather say I made a different, life-affirming choice.

Conscientious Objector by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

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