Rumors of War

KnockoutFor some time now, a terrible tragedy has been unfolding in Syria, as government and opposition forces have at each other over the control and destiny of the country.  Now, we have learned that chemical weapons have been used, with devastating results.  The international community is increasingly concerned, and now there are rumors of war as the US and other countries contemplate taking some kind of military action against Syria.  That action would likely not involve “troops on the ground”, as they say, but planes and missiles that can strike from afar.  We have been told that such an intervention would be in our best interests as Americans, though if the polls are to be believed, most of us are rather skeptical about that.

On the one hand, I understand the desire for some kind of action.  As we see what the Syrian people have been going through, and the particular horror of chemical weapons use, we feel that we want to do something.  We want to stop the suffering that these people have been going through.  We want to help them.  And since the Syrian government is not exactly going to invite us in to help out, this seems to be the only option to satisfy our desire to do something.  And, at its root, I think that desire is driven by a sense of compassion.

However, our recent history of “doing something” when we see other people suffering at the hands of their own government has not worked out very well.  Our military intervention in Iraq did, indeed, bring an end to Saddam Hussein and his regime, but there are quite a number of people who cannot conclude that the average Iraqi citizen is really better off now, as violence continues to ravage the country even as our military presence there diminishes.   And our intervention in Afghanistan has not exactly turned that country into a peaceful, happy place for the average Afghani.

The decision about whether to intervene in Syria is complex.  I don’t think I would want the responsibility of making it.  If the President decides to intervene, people will be upset.  And if he decides not to, different people will be upset.  Regardless of his decision, there will be suffering for the average person in Syria — either at the hands of their own government, or as a consequence of foreign military action, or both.

The reality is that war, in any form, is not ever a good thing for the average person who is caught up in it.  Americans like to entertain the idea that we, by virtue of our military might, can somehow make things better for people who are suffering in foreign places.  But history shows us that this is almost never true.  Those who have greeted our interventions happily have almost inevitably ended up resenting us, because their lives have almost always ended up not getting better, and in many cases, have gotten worse.  There are, I think, two truths that emerge from this history.  The first is that we often do not have the power to end the suffering of others, no matter how much we would like to.  And the second is that war is usually not the answer.

The early Christian church was profoundly pacifistic.  So much so that people who might be involved in the killing of others were considered ineligible for baptism.  That all changed when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, a huge military power.   In the centuries since, the Christian churches have tried to develop doctrines of just war to provide some sort of guidance as to when it was okay for Christians to go to war and when it was not.  But it’s a difficult task that lay before such theologians and theorists, for in the end, the message of the Gospel is simply one of non-violence.  As Jesus reminded his early followers, those who live by the sword shall die by it.  And so the truth of that teaching has been manifest down through the ages.

As we consider raining down missiles and bombs on Syria out of a desire to end the suffering of the people there, let us pause to remember the non-violence of Jesus, and to remember Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  None of these conflicts ended up being good for the average person in those countries, and our interventions in these places probably resulted in more lives lost than would have been the case had we not engaged in military action against or within these countries.  Thousands of Americans, and tens of thousands of average people around the world, bear the scars of military intervention, not to mention those whose lives are no more.

We should do all we can to help the people of Syria, and anyone who is suffering.  But we must do so carefully and mindfully, acknowledging that while we can help, we cannot fix.  And we should not delude ourselves into thinking that we can make everything better by dropping a few bombs and launching a few missiles.  We have an abundance of recent history that tells us this is almost never the case.

Fearing the Other

images-12Just this morning, I came upon an article that horrified me, until I learned that it was actually a satirical piece of “fake news”.  It was an article about the state of Arizona enacting a program in its public schools designed to help gay children find their way into “straightness”.   While, as I said, the article was a work of fiction, and there actually is no such program in Arizona, the fact that it at first appeared credible (and, judging by Facebook, not just to me!) is an indication of how accustomed we have become to the vilification of “the other”.

In many respects, the “culture wars” of the last several years can be boiled down to simply this:  a growing fear of “the other”, of people who don’t look like us, think like us, act like us, desire like us, believe like us.   And those among us who are most fearful are those who are trying desperately to enact policies and practices to enforce a kind of homogeneity on society that will either eliminate the other or force the other underground.  That way, they think, they can continue to live in a society that mirrors themselves, rather than having to learn to live in a diverse environment.

Sadly, to me, many of those who are most fearful of the other identify themselves as Christians.   Their understanding of Christianity is such that they seem to believe there is some kind of divine mandate that we should all be the same.  And, for them, it means that to be an American is to be this kind of Christian.   Faith and politics and patriotism all become merged for them, and it is all deeply rooted in a fear of those who don’t share this worldview.

Yet, if we look at what Jesus does in the Gospels, we see a very different way of being in the world.  Jesus also lived in a culture that was terribly fearful of the other, and that culture, too, sought to push the other into the margins and shadows of society.  And in his life and ministry, Jesus focused great attention on those people.  Jesus embraced the other, and suggested that by doing so, we would experience the kingdom of God in a new way.

He also warned his followers against being carried away by fear.  “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Mark 13:7)  The rumors of war and dire consequences that emanate from those who lives are run by their fear of the other should not be allowed to derail us from living the way of Jesus: the way that embraces the other.  Our consciousness as Christians is not to be formed by fear, but by the spirit of the living Christ who said that whatever we do (or do not do) to the least among us — to the other — we do or do not do to him.

Can We Stop Now?

Earth.galileoI came across an article today whose headline trumpeted the news that a new study has found that religious people are less intelligent than non-religious people.  The study apparently looked at evidence from 63 other studies and determined that “overall, the meta analysis establishes the existence of a ‘reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity.'”  So, I guess all those smart, religious people I know are either secretly not that religious or not as smart as they seem.  Of course, since I’m religious, I’m apparently not as smart as I seem, so that could be why the smart, religious people I know seem smart to me.  Sigh.

I can’t help but think about this issue of intelligence and religiosity against the background of the so-called culture wars.  The bottom line, it seems to me, is that too many “religious people” have run amok in our culture, advocating points of view that just don’t make sense to the average intelligent person.  Like all those religious people who believe that the universe was created in seven 24 hour days, “just the like the Bible says.”  And all those religious people who think that gay people are condemned to hell. And all those religious people who think that women should be subservient to men.  And…..well, the list goes on and on, and you are likely quite familiar with it.  And the media just loves these sorts of religious people, because they say outrageous things, and sometimes do outrageous things, and people supposedly just love watching people doing and saying outrageous things.  The way people seem to be compelled to slow down and gape at the aftermaths of accidents.

So, this latest proclamation about the relative unintelligence of religious people fits into the larger cultural narrative that the media loves to create:  the religious people are outrageous, and being religious means committing yourself to the outrageous.  It means, well, that you are mean.  And bigoted.  And prejudiced.  And…….on and on it goes.  Now I guess we can add stupid to the list.

The problem is there are a great many religious people who don’t fit into this cultural narrative.  I am surrounded almost every day of my life by bunches of religious people who are thoughtful and curious.  A great many of them have advanced degrees, and work in professions that require a great deal of analytical rigor.  And these same people are deeply committed to their faith, though the way they hold their faith does not sound like the faith that the media likes to talk about.  Indeed, for the most part, it is the polar opposite of what the media likes to talk about.

Even the “new atheists” seem largely unaware of this more thoughtful, more nuanced way of being faithful.  Almost every book I have ever encountered in the new atheist movement rails against the religion of the outrageous, and presents it as if that is the only thing faith is or can be.  And I find myself agreeing with them in many respects:  I don’t believe in the God they are railing against, either.  And yet, I’m not an atheist.  I do believe in God — but my God looks quite different from the God of the religious right.

So, I would really like us to stop now.  I would like us to stop trying to paint all religion and the people who practice religion as crazy and outrageous, while acknowledging that there are some who are.  And, while I’m on the subject, religious people need to stop painting non-religious people as if they were somehow terrible.   And, we all need to stop trying to push our beliefs and non-beliefs onto each other.  And trying to make our particular belief system the foundation for public policy.

Instead, we need to find a way to respect the belief systems and spiritual practices (or non-practices) that each of us follows.  And we need to recognize that if those beliefs and practices lead us to do harm to another person, or to restrict another person’s rights, that this is a problem.  In other words, we need to learn to love each other in the broadest sense of that word:  to want what is best for the human family, not just what is best for me alone or for those who agree with me.  Humanity has grown up living in relatively homogeneous cultures where people were religiously largely on the same or a similar page.  But this is quickly disappearing, certainly from America but also from other places.  We are living in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious age when very different people with very different beliefs and practices are living together.  If we are not ultimately to kill ourselves and each other, we need to learn to live in this reality, rather than trying desperately to live in a reality that we wish was true but is gone.  Living in this reality requires us to be more flexible, more open, more compassionate, more able to hold contradiction rather than needing to force all contradictions into some kind of resolution.

Yes, I suppose some will say that this is pie-in-the-sky idealism.  Perhaps it is.  But remember, I’m one of those religious people.  I’m expected to be a bit outrageous.

The article to which I am referring can be found HERE.

The Assurance of Things Hoped For

faith-road-sign-with-dramatic-clouds-and-skyIn many churches this coming Sunday, people will hear these well-known words from the Letter to the Hebrews:

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

It is probably the only explicit definition of faith offered in the New Testament, perhaps even in the whole of the Bible.  And what an interesting definition it is.  For it doesn’t point us toward anything concrete, but rather toward insubstantial notions like hope and conviction.  And the conviction is about “things not seen”.   On the whole, this definition of faith doesn’t seem to provide us much to hang our hats on.  And that is precisely the point.

In a recent blog posting on The Huffington Post, Frank Shaeffer talks about religious conservatives and liberals sharing something in common:  Fear.  He says, “Fear comes from being afraid we’re not certain about the facts of faith or non-faith.  Atheists and Christians all strive to be correct in our views.  But what if the very struggle for certitude is a dead end? ”  He goes on to say, “What is needed if our faith is to live, is for us to re-mythologize our holy traditions and texts, not to try to reduce them to what is true and not true as those terms are used for reading airline schedules.  There’s another way of seeing things: Something can never have happened and still be true.”

That’s a remarkable statement:  Something can never have happened and still be true.  Schaeffer goes on to use a flying analogy to amplify his meaning.  He points out that there is a difference between dreaming about flying and actually knowing how to fly a plane.  Indeed, people dreamed of flying  before there ever were airplanes that could in some sense make that dream a reality.  The Bible, he says, is “telling us why we dream to fly not how airplanes work.”  He concludes that “the least interesting question about religion is to ask, ‘Did this really happen?'”

And this gets us back to that definition of faith from the Letter to the Hebrews.  Just as the Bible is not seeking to impart to us the kind of knowledge contained in a airplane manual, but rather an invitation to the dream of God (and a recognition of the way human beings tend to get in the way of that dream), so faith is not committing one’s self to a set of “facts” about God and the world and then holding tightly to them no matter what any other branch of human knowledge may reveal.  Faith is not about committing one’s self to certain doctrinal statements as if those could be objectively verified in some laboratory somewhere.  No, faith is about what we as human beings hope for, and about the conviction that there is One who hopes with us.  Faith is about a conviction that our life, and the world in which we live, is more than what we are able to see.  It is our embracing of the dream of God that has been passed down to us.

In these latter days, we have handled that dream carelessly.  We have handled it in such a way that too many people are no longer willing to embrace that dream because it seems to them more like a nightmare.  And to the degree that we have contributed to that nightmare, we have betrayed that dream, and betrayed the very notion of faith itself.