Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November 11th

I've been struggling with this post since the tragedy of Ft. Hood last week, but especially because it is once again Veteran's Day in the US. I have deep conflict over the major civic holidays in this country and I really wish that it wasn't the case. I'm not sure it has to be that way, but I hope the issues presented here illuminate some of that struggle.

The Feast Day of St. Martin of Tours is also November 11th and I picked up on the profound statement the juxtaposition of these holidays makes from reading Shane Claiborne. St. Martin was a soldier in the Roman Army and descended from a long line of soldiers. He had a crisis experience early in his Christian journey that led him to risk his life to quit fighting. He volunteered to stand unarmed between two warring armies to prove both his bravery and his commitment to Christ.

One of the things I believe most strongly about Christian life is the call to make a unique statement, to engage in actions, a lifestyle that does not mark one out as simply "a good person," but one that marks one out as a follower of Christ. We must remember that there is a difference between what common morality demands and what faith in Christ requires of us.

I appreciate the statement of a Christian holiday commemorating one who was brave enough to die for peace set alongside the civic holiday commemorating many who have been brave enough to die in war.

I have nothing against soldiers - I've never met one who fit the movie stereotype of the bloodthirsty goon. I'm sure they exist in some small number, but every soldier I have ever met committed to a military life with careful consideration and generally selfless motives.

The desire to protect innocent people and the desire to stand up for what one believes to be noble and good causes are commendable. Most combat veterans exhibit the kind of bravery I doubt I could ever muster. For this they have my humble respect.

However, as a Christian, I feel fighting in a war relies too heavily on human means to achieve these positive ends - in the same way politicians rely too heavily on human means to bring justice and security - in the same way we rely too heavily on our paychecks and the sweat of our brows to feed and clothe our families.

The message of the gospel is one of alternative choices. Choices that make little sense in the rational extrapolation of our common wisdom, but choices that I must believe will ultimately prove victorious.

There is no way to completely rationalize one's outlook on life - at some point we must have faith in something, whether in human ability or scientific discovery or in God. The one thing I have to believe is that the humiliating execution of one man 2000 years ago changed the way the world works for all time.

I don't want to argue about pacifism here. That is not the subject of this post. While my ideals would lead me to take a stand elsewhere, I cannot claim, given the intense situations which have been faced by so many people before me, I would choose any different. This should not be an issue of idealism versus reality. It is an issue of how the Church responds to the reality of war.

I don't begrudge Christians who join the military. There are veterans in my family and among some of my closest friends. I understand the choice they've made and the faith they continue to possess. When people are away I pray for their safety and for God's presence with them and with the families they leave behind. I think we should all do what we can (and in my case, much more than I do) to support those families torn apart by war in this way.

At the same time, we must stand for peace. We must pray for an end to all war and not through one side defeating another, but for both sides to recognize the sovereignty of God and turn their tanks into tractors (to paraphrase the prophet).

So I suppose my opposition is not in recognizing veterans (as I've said, there is so much to admire in their lives and characters) as it is to what seems like the glorification of war. Freedom and security are not won through battles or revolutions or elections. They are gifts from God; and gifts that we're not promised to always enjoy. In fact, the promise we receive is hardship and persecution - this is the cost of a gospel that makes no good sense to those who stand on the outside - but one that is the very definition of life and death.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Apolitical Politics

A friend asked me today whether I talk about politics to be right or to discuss. It was (and is) an astute questions. Upon reflection I think my answer is "neither." Let me attempt to explain:

I was quite worked up today, really as a byproduct of some stressful and unexpected curves in an otherwise straightforward afternoon, and listening to coverage of the current health care debate in the US did not help things at all. In reality, I suppose I am more upset that people cannot act civilly with one another, but instead create a partisan mess out of what should be an important discussion. It seems no one within the US political spectrum finds it helpful to engage in honest, realistic discourse. Both sides appear determined to keep their illusions at the forefront of media coverage, most likely because the public has made it abundantly clear that we too care little about real issues, only those shouting points aimed at the sections of our brain governing compassion, fear, and (most importantly) self preservation.

I believe that I would like to establish the what well before we move into discussion of the how. I would like to affirm the importance of every human life and the desire that every human life be cared for and maintained with all dignity and respect. Furthermore it is important to affirm the communal responsibility we play in caring for the whole of humanity. Obviously, this is an idealistic goal.

Often I wish that we could return to a life of subsistence, in which we grew our own food, made our own clothes and relied solely on ourselves for our livelihood and daily needs. However, when I indulge in this romanticism, I am starkly reminded that this image of simple utopia is not something that ever existed and thus not something to which we can return. We, as human beings (and probably before we were human beings), have always relied on each other; we are not inherently an individualistic people, nor an individualistic society. We must interact and we must rely on each other, as much as that feels dangerous and unsure to us.

At some point, the discussion of health care must inevitably move to one of pragmatics and there a robust debate is not only warranted, but necessary. I am just not sure the discussion is ready to be had; at least it appears that way, judging from the actions of those most involved. Nevertheless, it appears something will need to be done. No one likes the status quo all that much.

During the 2008 US Presidential election I came to the realization that I could not support any candidate for President (I believe there is a blog post earlier about that struggle), but I was very certain that I preferred some candidates over others. I was much happier to discuss specific issues and how I might prefer them to be handled, allowing others to judge for themselves which imperfect candidate they thought would come closest to their ideals. At this point it feels very similar in discussing health care reform proposals; it seems everyone has some idea for implementation, but none of them seem all that great. I do agree that something should be done; at this point I feel like doing something is better than doing nothing. Still, I would prefer to discuss why health care is an important issue and why it should have the seriousness and attention I long for it to have.

In the end, however, I am not afraid of the proposed reforms in the same way I was unafraid of who might emerge from the 2008 election as "the most powerful human being on the planet." In the end I do not place any faith in human endeavor to solve the problems of the world. Our combined efforts can do mighty things; we can move mountains, change the course of rivers, feed and clothe millions, and we can also destroy cities, ecosystems, families, and lives. Our actions have consequences, but none that will bring ultimate finality to anything. No matter what legislation we enact on any topic under the sun, life will go on and we will continue to have to deal with one another.

I would prefer to focus my time and efforts on exploring the assumptions I bring to those interactions and the values to which I am driven by those assumptions.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Another Day

So I watched the Superbowl last night. The game was engaging enough, but I was tired and didn't have a real stake in the outcome. I am a big fan of Mike Tomlin, though, the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The announcers made a lot out of the fact that Tomlin, age 36, was the youngest person to both coach, and now win, a Superbowl. I didn't realize the significance of that fact until this morning.

Just two years ago, with media darling and All-American boy Peyton Manning on the verge of his first Superbowl title, the only story covered by the news media was the match-up of head coaches. Either Tony Dungy of Indianapolis or Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears would be the first African-American head coach to win the game. Six days later, an upstart young Senator announced his candidacy for President of the United States.

All of these thoughts converged as I showered and started my day this morning. Not once did either of the announcers mention that Mike Tomlin was black. In the span of two years the color of an NFL coach's skin no longer mattered. It was old news.

This was an interesting fact until later this afternoon when our Barack Obama Inaugural Special Commemorative Issue of Newsweek magazine landed in the mailbox. As I was thumbing through the essays connecting the 44th President to seemingly every person who has ever lived, I was again taken aback by the emotion of his election. I relived the feelings of awe and inspiration that I had experienced on election night and the inauguration just two weeks previous.

However, as wonderful and important as these emotions are, they've already become stale and slightly disingenuous. Just last week the President's first major bill was approved on a straight party line vote in the House of Representatives and the same bill looks to be equally challenged in the Senate. We're back to business as usual in Washington.

Just as Mike Tomlin's skin had become meaningless, so had the monumental achievement of electing a black man President of the United States. I'm not sure that's a bad thing; in fact it has moved me in similar, if less emotional, ways to the election itself. I've never been accused of being the most patriotic person, but one thing that is truly great about the United States is our ability to move on.

At times we complain about the national attention deficit disorder that drives us from one crazed celebrity to the next. But this same "problem" allows us to reach the long-awaited top of a difficult hill and immediately look towards the next challenge. We have a lot of issues in this country and even our racial difficulties will not miraculously disappear, but one small part of those challenges is over.

On January 20th, 2009 we inaugurated a new President and he was a black man. It may have been the most revolutionary piece of political news in centuries.

On January 21st, it was no big deal.