Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Solution is Jubilee

I am not an economist. I do not pretend to know exactly how we've gotten into the situation we're in economically. I don't know if a disastrous depression is avoidable, or if avoiding it would be right in the long run. Even the supposed experts seem pretty stumped right now. But that isn't going to stop me from commenting from my perspective - that of a pastor.

Debt is the basic problem. Our economy is a credit economy to such a degree that everyone, at every level, functions continually by manipulation of debt. Debt, in fact, is practically the real currency of the land. Debt itself is what banks trade back and forth with one another, regarding interest accruing loans themselves as assets, even though all such money is speculative - it depends on the ability to actually collect it. For a long time our faith in the basic engine of this system, consumer spending, has kept us multiplying and accruing debts assuming that all of them were of value, because they would eventually be paid. What has become clear is that the debt has grown to such a volume that it is really impossible to collect. Panicked lenders have foreclosed like mad, hoping to scrape some tiny fraction of the supposed value of those debts out of the wreckage.

The scale and intricacy of this credit system is novel, but the basic problem is not new at all. The ancients knew everything we do about burdensome debt. It has been the practice of the elite in every society to maintain power partly through leveraging debts on the lower classes. Whether this was in the form of latifundialization as in Israel, or the enclosure system in industrial England, or our own credit economy, the effects are similar. At some point all such systems become imbalanced by a preponderance of debt resulting in social and economic crisis.

To counteract the injustices which occur when one group of human beings is excessively indebted to another, the Torah prescribes Jubilee. In every 49th (or 50th year depending how you read it), all debts were to be forgiven and all property held as collateral to be restored to its original owner. The effect of this is to completely wipe the slate clean every so often. Furthermore, Torah instructs us not to deny anyone any loans even the day before Jubilee begins.

Jubilee has almost certainly never been practiced as it is described. The effects of such an event would be radically egalitarian. Since the wealthy are not permitted to deny loans and the poor are automatically forgiven their debt, it amounts to redistributive justice on the largest possible scale. At some point, in practicing Jubilee, no one would be poor and no one would be wealthy. For all of these reasons people will say that it is impractical or even unfair (though it is really the definition of fairness), and one can easily see why it has never actually happened.

Imagine, though, if we decided to try and enact it in some form. Imagine if the government, for example, started by forgiving all student loans, all loans to the banks through the Federal Reserve, and instructed the banks to do likewise. Even if the banks were required only to forgive the highest interest loans to those with the lowest incomes - imagine the effect it would have on families. Declare a moratorium on all foreclosures, and a temporary period of penalty-free bankruptcy. Even if we set conditions on those bankruptcies (such as only families or individuals below a certain income level), how many people could we rescue from homelessness or total poverty? What if we did a host of other little things to help eradicate debt - such as set low maximum limits on credit card interest, or removed penalties for early repayment? What if we used money from these massive stimulus bills to set up a debt registry and allowed people to apply to receive grants specifically to pay down debt?

Of course, I'd love it if we would just declare an actual Jubilee and forgive all debts tomorrow. Wipe the slate clean. Yes there would be enormous consequences. It would mean the end of our credit economy as we know it. Citibank and Capital One and Bank of America and others would probably be destroyed. Some people would lose their jobs (but keep their homes and be debt free!). We'd have to pick up and figure out how to start again. Furthermore, it couldn't be completely accomplished unless it was worldwide, because our economy is global. So no one would really be able to say the final result of such a cataclysmic decision. But I have faith that it would lay the foundation for a better world, because Jubilee is about forgiveness.

Just think about it, what if everyone in the world forgave everyone else tomorrow?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Are We Crazy?

Giant stone heads on the slopes of Rano Raraku are all that remain of the culture of the Rapanui on Easter Island. These heads have come to symbolize widespread cultural obsession. They stand for self-destructive excess. Like the Mayans, the Minoans, and countless others the Rapanui are no more. They are the historical Atlanteans, sunk by their own hubris into the ignominy of unexplained extinction.

We are erecting stone heads, nowadays, grander and more impressive than ever before. A few months ago Congress passed a $700 billion bailout plan, and now we are considering an $825 billion dollar stimulus package to go along with it. The voracious appetite of American consumer culture, sponsored and fomented by extremes of corporate greed impossible to fathom, has brought us to the point where we seemingly have no option but to dump everything we have into the abyss.

This is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. It is a bipartisan suicide pact. True, the Republicans are not happy with this current plan which has too much social services and infrastructure in it for their tastes - they prefer the money go directly to banks and businesses. But there are only a few lonely voices in the wilderness actually crying "madness"!

In general, I would prefer a government interested in infrastructure, and healthcare, and education, than one interested in war and defense. In general I agree with Obama that most of these areas are worth investing in, but I completely disagree that the proper response to economic turmoil is spend more money. Obama has joined right in with everyone else in Washington talking about defending "our way of life" and "securing the American dream". We are suffering from a national delusion that we are entitled to our present standard of living.

We are not entitled. We are using a vastly disproportionate amount of the world's resources and creating a vastly disproportionate amount of the world's waste. This has to end. It will end, one way or another. It can either end because we finally wake up from our insanity and begin to submit to the demands of justice, or it will end catastrophically and someone centuries from now will stand looking in amazement at the absurd stone heads we've left behind.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Prosecute Torturers, Mr. President

In the wake of the inauguration there are several facts which need to be faced:
  • The United States has tortured prisoners.
  • Torture is unambiguously illegal and immoral.
  • Those who committed torture and especially those who authorized torture must be prosecuted to restore the rule of law.
This is not a peripheral issue. It is not safe to move into the future without making redress for the sins of our past. There is too much at stake here. Open criminality, particularly by those in authority, is a cancer on democracy. If we do not prosecute we are approving the criminal behavior of the Bush administration. Because we are all responsible for the actions of our elected officials our only course of action is to hold ourselves and our leaders responsible for these crimes or to abdicate our power.

I am very passionate about this topic. I am an active member of NRCAT, and No2Torture. I encourage you to be as well. I will write in more detail on this subject in the future, but today I am happy to point out that there are people making the argument for prosecution far more effectively than I can.

First of all, if you read only one piece on this subject read this. Scott Horton, the author of the article is an International Human Rights lawyer who has made legal issues around torture his primary specialty since the Vietnam War. He knows more about this subject than anyone, and he writes with more clarity and force than anyone. A taste:
Reasserting the rule of law is no simple matter. A new administration may—or may not—bring an end to open torture in the United States, but it will not bring an end to our knowledge and acceptance of what has already taken place. If the people wish to maintain sovereignty, they must also reclaim responsibility for the actions taken in their name. As of yet, they have not. Pursuing the Bush Administration for crimes long known to the public may amount to a kind of hypocrisy, but it is a necessary hypocrisy. The alternative, simply doing nothing, not only ratifies torture; it ratifies the failure of the people to control the actions of their government.
You can hear him debate the subject of prosecution and the manner with other experts on the topic in this great radio interview.

Much debate is indeed being had about the precise route to take, whether it be a Military Court, or an International War Crimes Tribunal, or a Truth and Reconciliation Commission... what is not really debatable is whether there is a crime to prosecute, and evidence sufficient to justify prosecution of specific individuals including the former President and Vice President. Bush and Cheney have both publicly confessed. Susan J. Crawford, the top Bush Administration official in charge of the cases at Guantanamo has recently explicitly labeled the treatment of Qahtani torture. The preponderance of evidence is enormous.

Keith Olbermann is dead right on this subject:

President Obama doesn't want to have to be the guy that does this dirty work (who would?). He knows it will be perceived by some as a partisan witch hunt, but the nation really can't afford to let this slip. Not and maintain any pretense of respect for the rule of law.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inaugural Podcast - Rick Warren

Episode 1 - Rick Warren

Here is the inaugural podcast by Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson as Two Friars and a Fool.

Prayers of Invocation

Obama is President. Over the past couple days a lot of prominent clergy have prayed publicly on his behalf. One in particular, Rick Warren, is the subject of our first Podcast which Nick is going to post in this space very soon. We recorded the podcast the night before the inauguration so we hadn't heard Warren's prayer yet. The invocation turned out to be pretty subdued, even bland, and was quickly forgotten by most of the media. The controversy had the wind sucked out of it. In a week no one will remember it at all.

After some intense searching I finally found one good piece of commentary that says what I would say about Warren's prayer. Essentially I want to give the guy props for praying an intelligent inclusive prayer, while claiming his Christian, and even conservative evangelical roots. It wasn't flashy or special. He didn't call attention to himself or his pet causes. I don't think he could have done any better.

It's an interesting contrast with some of the other praying that was going on. Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire prayed an awkward prayer to "the God of our many understandings" - which is not as bad as I feared it was going to be when he announced in an interview that he was shocked how explicitly "christian" inaugural prayers had historically been and that he would pray a "non-Christian prayer". It disappoints me when progressives trip over themselves in a well-intentioned but idiotic rush to be so inclusive that they end up being parodies of themselves. Warren did a better job respecting people of other faiths (and no faith) by simply being himself, subtly including the words of other traditions which he could affirm in his prayer, and emphasizing his personal faith, rather than presuming to pray for the whole world.

TD Jakes was also on the scene and managed to make a fool of himself by saying he was going to give the president a benediction the way his 14-year-old son would do quoting Star Trek and saying "May the Force be with you." Yes, the famous health-and-wealth preacher actually confused Star Wars and Star Trek in his benediction of the President Elect on Inauguration Day.

Fortunately Rev. Joseph Lowery, who gave the benediction at the Inauguration ceremony, didn't try to include any pop-culture references, he didn't try to stake some kind of invisible middle-ground or pray any kind of prayer but the one he knows how to pray well. His prayer came across as more natural than Warren's, who seemed somewhat out of his element. Lowery was at moments inspirational, at moments light-hearted, and on the whole profoundly biblical. It may not be the right kind of prayer for a supposedly secular nation-state, but it was the right kind of prayer for Lowery and I liked it a lot.

The one thing about all of this praying that really concerns me is the conspicuous absence of anyone but protestants. There were no Catholic priests, no Rabbis, no Imams, or Swamis, or anyone else. Obama's selections were inclusive politically (conservative Warren, liberal Robinson), but represented a narrow selection of the populace religiously. Of course, perhaps the real problem here is that atheist critics are correct - and religion shouldn't be invoked at all in a secular political ceremony. One certainly has to question why so many pastors rush to bless the machinery of the state, but then I lean toward Covenantal Anarchy.

Monday, January 19, 2009

People Who Live In Paper Houses...

...will beat rock houses, but lose to scissors?

This is some genius ingenuity. The picture you see is a house made of recycled "paper", designed to accommodate up to 8 residents, including interior plumbing. The house is stable, well insulated and has a few neat features, the most important of which is that it costs about $5000.

It is intended to be one solution to the shanty towns which have blossomed all over the third world in this century. Houses which don't collapse on their inhabitants. Houses which include plumbing. Houses made of cheap, reclaimed materials that are easy to transport and assemble... I could really see this improving a lot of people's lives. Think about charities like Habitat for Humanity. Currently it costs about $2000 just to do flooring in a house built by Habitat. Imagine, for the cost of one house that Habitat currently builds, how many people could be housed.

I'm not saying everyone should live in paper houses, or that we should stop other types of charity, but we DO need some creative solutions for some of the deepest levels of poverty. Here is one.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My Starting Points, in Brief

Since Aric has posted his number one rule of theology, and I've just posted my ideas about the importance of you starting points being clearly laid out at the beginning of any theology, I figured I'd better chime in.

I definitely agree with Aric's rule. I'm willing to disagree on details and to have my beliefs here challenged, but God has to be good, or else I'm out of the game. If I accept the possibility of some kind of god (which I clearly do) then I must accept some possibility of an evil god. I think I have good reasons why there wouldn't be one, but that's for another post, if ever. In brief, God is good, or God is not God.

I also want to have a rule that is something like science is very important. Science is a way of knowing about things we can perceive and experience materially. Ignoring it is really, really stupid. Our theology must make sense in the actual world where we all live. It cant' all be based on our arguments about our 'imaginary friends'. We do not dare have a flat-Earth theology, or a theology that posits a literal Hell in the ground beneath our feet, or one which posits angels floating above the clouds, because there are very good reasons to be certain that those things do not exist.

One specific area of interest for me is the science of mind, including philosophy of mind, scientific inquiries into consciousness and the various problems encountered there, and neurobiology. Theology takes place in our brains, and the more we understand about our brains, the better our theology will become. This means we need to be open to challenges leveled against our core intuitions and perceptions - things like "free will" and ego and our five senses, and how they seem to be partly what we think, and partly quite different than we would have imagined.

Another starting point for me is that experience is very important. Our theologies must conform to our experience - both because they will whether we admit it or not, and because our theology needs to actually apply to human life in discernible ways. What this implies to me is that everyone's experience is important to our theology, including atheists and Buddhists and Kalahari bush peoples and day traders in Manhattan and Japanese Shinto priests and so on. I am uninterested in niche theologies which only speak to a particular kind of Christian. I am also uninterested in Christian theologies which do not take seriously the experiences of non-Christians.

I am also an unapologetic, educated, enthusiastic and passionate pluralist. I've found it impossible to study religion and not come to respect it. I've found it impossible to meet people who practice other religions and not respect them. One way that respect manifests is to not assume they are tragically mistaken, that their reasoning and tradition and experience is chock-full of lies while mine is pristine. I just can't bring myself to do it, and I see no compelling reason why I should have to, as a Christian or otherwise.

Also, honestly, I meet Christians who appear to be practicing a different religion from me entirely, and I want to respect them too.

A last starting-point that comes to mind is my belief that our perceptions, intuitions and reasoning are imperfect, meaning the things we come up with are imperfect. If there are objective truths about things like religion, we will never, never know them, ever. Even if we could experience them we would not perceive them accurately. Even if we could perceive them we would not understand them accurately. Even if we could understand them we could not communicate them to others. And so on.

To be really blunt, I've never met anyone who claimed objective knowledge who didn't seem to be foolish in part and blind in part and deceived in part and correct in part - just like everyone else (I'd add some links, but I don't want to encourage them). Show me a perfect person, and I'll listen to their "objective" truth claims about religion. Otherwise, I'll assume you're all in the same soup I'm in, meaning grains of salt all around.

For the sauce on top of these things, I am an ardent pacifist, I have strong anarchistic leanings which I call covenantal anarchy, I have a harsh and often-inappropriate sense of humor, I live primarily in my imagination, I love J.R.R. Tolkien on a multitude of levels, I am not afraid of heresy (read: I am not afraid of ideas), and if I spend all of my time doing "churchy" stuff, I explode. I need a life outside of this stuff too, and I have one, and it is geeky and wonderful.

Addendum: it occurred to me after I wrote this that I should add my belief that what is true is also beautiful. I don't insist that this always hold true, but I am going to be drawn to truth statements and truth claims which make the world appear more beautiful, which are elegant to contemplate, and which appeal to my aesthetic sense. Ugly truths, for me, are surface truths. They are the fodder of stand-up comedians and cynical bastards like myself, but I think that ugly truths are painful to hear, forcing us to either laugh or cry bitterly, because they are incomplete. They leave one hungering for what is beneath them. At least, that's my take on it.

A Wild Proposal

One of the biggest mistakes people continually make in arguing about the present day situation of Israel is conflating the modern secular democratic nation-state, with the Biblical theocratic kingdom. This mistake is grave for all sides and everyone concerned. Let me explain.

For those in the West, particularly Christians in the West, the conflation of Israel with Biblical Israel brings up guilt-inducing images of the Holocaust. It is a reminder of centuries of institutionalized and theologically legitimized anti-semitism. Relations with Israel for Europe and the United States are an on-going attempt at atonement, to ease troubled consciences. As long as Israel is somehow mixed up in our heads with the mythical kingdom of yore, it is a stand-in for Judaism and ethnic Jews world wide. How we treat Israel, is how we treat Jews.

For those in the Middle East, particularly Muslims, the conflation of Israel with Biblical Israel is a terrifying spectre. So long as Israel is connected to that mythical past in their minds they cannot help but see Israel's behavior in light of Joshua's crusade (the word is chosen intentionally) to cleanse the land. The existence of Israel in its ideal Biblical state means the eradication of other religious and ethnic groups in the region. This is why, for them, the fight is always cast in such extreme terms. Israel has to be wiped from the map (according to Ahmadinejad) because this is Holy War, and they believe Israel intends exactly the same to them.

The problem with both of these views is that they are wildly off-base. Present day Israel is NOT the Kingdom of David. It is NOT God's people. It is a secular democratic nation state. It does not (and should not) represent either the ethnic descendents of Israel and Judah OR the religion of Judaism. It cannot serve, for the West, as a way to expiate our guilty conscience, and it is not, for the East, a movement of Holy War against Islam.

So here is my wild proposal - rename Israel. Reconstitute it explicitly as what it really is and what it always should have been: a secular democratic nation state with geographic rather than ethnic or religious boundaries. Ensure that the new state is explicitly chartered to serve the needs of all people within its boundaries without regard for religion or ethnicity, and hold that nation accountable for its behavior toward its citizens and its neighbors exactly as we would any other. Defend that nation from aggression on the part of its neighbors, and start a diplomatic blitzkrieg of the entire region recasting the entire situation in new terms. It is not Jew vs. Muslim. It is not Israeli vs. Palestinian. That was NEVER the issue, in fact.

There are various options for names. We could go with Palestine since that is what it was called for nearly 2000 years, before the creation of the new state. That would probably arouse suspicions that we were picking a side though, so other options include: Canaan and Philistia. Or perhaps it would be best to avoid anything with misleading historic associations at all. They could invent something entirely new. Call it: the Land of Hope.

Let's wipe the accumulated grime of projected fantasy from our lenses and realize that all of the conflict of the past 60 years has been caused by mass hallucination. We've been so busy dividing the region up along theological lines that we've utterly ignored the reality, which is that the lines are political and socio-economic, not religious or ethnic. Israel as we know it is not Israel as we imagine it once was.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Background Information for Episode 1

Our first podcast is coming soon. Read the brief biography of Rick Warren I posted earlier and then have a look at some of this material to get ready for the discussion.

Here is Rick Warren's own "News and Views" podcast he produces every couple weeks. This one is from mid-December and it highlights a number of the issues we are likely to touch on. I especially like, at about the 2 minute mark, where he says that bloggers who criticize him need to get a life. Yep. We do.

Here is a portion of the Civic Forum Warren hosted, where he interviewed Obama and McCain. This is just a portion with Obama, but if you follow it back to Youtube you can find the rest of the clips.

Below is a chunk of an interview Warren did with Sean Hannity on Fox News to promote his new book. The conversation took a brief diversion into foreign policy, as you will see...

And here is a CNN debate on Obama's choice to have Warren deliver the invocation at his inauguration.

There is a plethora of material out there if you want more perspectives to reflect on, but this should give you a start.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Meet Richard Duane Warren

We said from the beginning that this site was going to host a podcast and maybe eventually forums and who knows what else. We are very much "in development" here. This is early stages. You are seeing us without our makeup on. But we meant what we said about the podcast.

Our first podcast will be posted this weekend if things go smoothly, and the subject will be Pastor Rick Warren. Tune in to hear Doug, Nick, and myself banter about the man who is, for better or worse, the most prominent face of the church in our country right now.

We're saving the meaty stuff for the podcast, but I thought it would be useful to put up some basic biographical information about Rev. Warren, for us and our readers to refer to. If you haven't already been inundated with commentary and editorial on this guy, you've probably been living under a rock, but somehow in a sea of opinion this kind of basic information often gets missed.

Rick Warren is the senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. Most places I've found list this as somewhere between the 4th and 8th largest megachurch in the country, with weekly attendance around 20,000 people. He founded Saddleback in 1980, preaching on his first Sunday to a congregation of 200. Since then the church has used 80 different facilities as they've grown. His church is big. Really big.

Warren was born in 1954 in San Jose, California. His father was a Baptist minister, and his mother was a High School Librarian. He received his personal call into full-time ministry at the age of 19 when he and a friend skipped class to go hear W.A. Criswell preach. Shaking hands after the service, Criswell laid hands on Warren and announced that he would start a church of his own. Warren went to Seminary at Southwestern Baptist where he graduated in 1979, just before starting Saddleback.

Warren is most famous for writing the "Purpose Driven" series of books, particularly Purpose Driven Life. The first book in the series was about his church growth strategies. Purpose Driven Life is a devotional for the individual believer focusing on the same themes of achieving goals by trusting in God. These books have spawned a series of conferences and countless small groups in churches around the world who aim to restructure their lives, and their ministry using Warren's method.

Warren is usually regarded as a moderate evangelical because his ministry has included emphasis on education, HIV/AIDS relief, poverty, and other issues typically emphasized by progressives. However, he holds strongly conservative views on social issues like abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, and capital punishment. He is theologically conservative on most issues, though some evangelicals have questioned his positions on salvation for non-christians, which he has normally claimed to be agnostic about.

Warren has recently gained a lot of attention and controversy for his political involvement. He played a role in the 2008 Presidential election when he hosted John McCain and Barack Obama at his church for a question and answer session in a stated attempt to restore civility to civil discourse. However, many felt that he was manipulative in his questions in order to boost John McCain's image. He also was a public supporter of Prop 8 in California to ban homosexual marriage, comparing homosexuality to pedophilia and incest in his sermons. These actions made him a controversial choice by President Elect Obama to give the inaugural prayer on January 20th.

Many are saying that Warren is the new Billy Graham - the nation's pastor. Regardless of whether you like him or not he is shaping many people's perception of Christianity in America.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Complex and Simple

It has been difficult for me to contain my anger lately, when it comes to the dominant public response to the Gaza catastrophe. Israel's apologists are suddenly everywhere, once the media starts reporting the body count.

There is some kind of disease rampant in our society right now, which causes people to invert normal moral reasoning. Complex things are suddenly simple, and simple things are suddenly complex to the victims of this disease. Powerful is weak, and weak is powerful. Those suffering from this disease are immune to facts and reason. Mere empirical data has no sway with them. It is maddening to watch the tortured analogies being spewed by "experts" and politicians, bloggers and pundits all turning things into their opposite. It is as if they are living in photo-negative world where black is white, and white is black.

Let me give you an example. This is a quote from Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, used by Senator Jon Kyl who spoke in favor of a resolution supporting Israel's actions in Gaza. The whole text is here. He says:
Some geopolitical conflicts are morally complicated. The Israel-Gaza war is not. It possesses a moral clarity not only rare, but excruciating.
What? With all due respect Senator, have you gone out of your mind? Not complicated?

So I suppose that this current conflict has nothing to do with a century of western imperialism and interventionism in the Middle East. I suppose that this particular conflict is completely hermetically sealed off from the events that established Israel in the first place, or which led to their illegal occupation of territory beyond their internationally recognized borders in the 70's until today. It certainly must have nothing to do with systematic resettlement of palestinian groups, a collapsed infrastructure, the continual involvement of foreign powers on all sides (the US and Britain from the West, Syria and Iran from the East), or an entrenched culture of retaliation. It also was not precipitated by an 18 month siege during which even students were prohibited from entering or leaving the Gaza strip by the Israeli military.

Knowingly or not the Senator is relying on some form of Just War theory in order to make his argument that in this conflict Israel is justified, but he must not know very much about Just War theory, because in no way can Israel's current aggression be regarded as Just. To be just it must be proportional - the body count alone shows it is not the case. To be just it must not put innocents at risk - a vast majority of casualties on both sides have been civilians so far. To be just it must have been a case of last resort - given the enormous disparity in power between these two forces no one can make a credible argument that Israel had no other options available to them.

When we begin making simple things complex and complex things simple we are doing a very dangerous thing.

For example, various sides will describe this conflict as if it were essentially a religious war between Jews and Muslims. Apologists for Israel do this whenever they scream "antisemitism" at anyone who criticizes Israel. Supporters of Hamas, Hezbollah and others are just as bad when everything is "Zionism". This is not principally a religious conflict. Certainly not a straightforward one. Israel is a secular democratic nation. It does not act on behalf of the Jewish people or inspired by Jewish beliefs. Palestinians are not uniformly Muslim, and even those that are Muslim, are frequently more driven by claims of basic injustice and a sense of national identity than by religious ideology. The roots of this conflict are complex and have as much or more to do with economics and international relations than with religion.

On the other hand, there is an aversion to seeing simple truths. Here are two:

Launching military assaults on schools, mosques and residential neighborhoods is wrong. There is no justification for this. Yes, Hamas is despicable for using human shields. But if a criminal bank-robber is using a human shield the police do not take the risk of killing the hostage. They negotiate.

No matter what the provocation, the party with the greater power is the one who bears the most responsibility for the conflict. Power means not having to respond. Israel is a nuclear power with an extraordinarily well equipped and trained military. Hamas is a bunch of lunatics with some homemade mortars. If 5 year olds are throwing rocks at a teenager, the teenager does not have the right to go beat the crap out of the kids.

When it comes to simple truths like these, people will make all manner of complicated excuse for their side. Apologists for Israel have been hammering the point for years that the Israeli army does everything in their power to avoid civilian casualties (except, you know, not fire at civilians). Their attacks are surgical and they give forewarning etc... etc... whereas Hamas flagrantly aims directly for civilian targets. This fact only serves to highlight the disparity of power at play here. Hamas has supposedly been doing their best for years to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible and still they have managed to kill only a tiny fraction of the number that Israel has.

The worst aspect of this topsy turvy disease is that the victims hurl insults at anyone who tries to point out the inverted logic, as though disapproving of Israel's military action meant we wished harm on the citizens of Israel. I deplore all violence, and I refuse to participate in the wild justification of mass-scale murder, whether it is our nation, an ally, or an enemy that commits it. It's that simple.

Addendum: Go read this blog for an intimate human portrait of the situation in Gaza. It is co-written by persons on either side of the Gaza-Israel border.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What Do I Mean By "Good"?

In my previous post I said that my #1 rule of theology is that God is Good (all the time). That got the pretty obvious follow-up question in the comments, "what do I mean by good?"

It's a reasonable question. We might agree, after all, that "God is Good" (all the time), and disagree entirely on what that looks like. I think it is important to keep your core affirmations simple, precisely so they are stable enough to support a rational system of ideas and beliefs. So while, I'm happy to try and give some definition to my meaning of "good" I wouldn't include this stuff in my rule, because my opinions can and do change sometimes (and on a rare occasion I'm even wrong).

So what can I say about "good"? I will say that it is an immense concept - a quality which can be applied to people, situations, behaviors, and things. It has overwhelmingly positive connotations, be they moral, artistic or emotional. When we say someone or something is good, it is a positive affirmation. A statement of support. An indication that it is "right" or "virtuous". A "good" thing is itself in a way that is proper or laudatory, even exemplary. But these are all ways of getting at the concept generally. I can be more specific.

"Good" is the object of moral reasoning. It has been defined variously, by different schools of ethics, as "seeking the greatest benefit for the greatest number" (utilitarianism), "never treating another person as a means to an end, but only as an end in themself" (deontology), or "perfecting oneself through habits of virtue" (virtue ethics). There are more ways of approaching this, but the central agreement here is that there is such a thing as "good" and it is possible to deduce what is good for a particular person or in a particular situation via reason, experience, observation and rules.

One way of describing the process of moral reasoning for arriving at the "good" is the ascription of value. We ascribe value to tangible and intangible factors alike in attempting to determine what is the best course of action or way of being. For example, we value things like "freedom", "truth", and "safety". By placing relative value on these things we can then begin to discern right from wrong by whether or not it promotes or injures these values. Everything, from individual actions, to patterns of behavior, to the substance of a person is valuable in this sense, in different degrees. When something is highly valuable we call it "good". When something has extremely low value, or a primarily detrimental effect on higher values we call it "bad". This makes ethical calculation complex indeed, but also crucial.

There is no way of getting around the fact that relative valuation of moral "goods" is extremely subjective. You and I are going to disagree on whether "freedom" or "truth" is more valuable. This makes it difficult to make very definitive statements about what is good. Openness to persuasion is thus a virtue, a "good", I believe we should value, but ultimately we have to agree that the "good" is something worth pursuing and it is attainable in some degree. If we don't at least agree on that, then the conversation was over before it started.

How does this relate to what I mean by saying "God is Good"?

First, "goodness" like God is somewhat inscrutable. It eludes perfect understanding. However, like God, "goodness" is indeed knowable, and it is imperative on us to seek to know it. The quest to know God and the quest to know what is good are intimately related, because God is the ultimate definition of good. Where we are forced often to choose between relative goods, sometimes sacrificing a lesser good for the greater, God retains the value of all goods at all times. Indeed, God increases the value of all goods infinitely. In God, every good attains its perfection and no imperfections are found.

To say "God is Good", is not like saying "Mozart's music is good" or "charity is good". It is saying, "God IS Good". God is the essence of good. God is pure, distilled, good.

So many of our theological questions, failing to grasp this, start with false premises. For example, the possibility of universal salvation is often said to be in conflict with free will. Some will say, for God to be good God must save everyone and permit no suffering, but others will say that for God to be good God must permit his creation a choice, which means there is a possibility some will not be saved. God does not have to choose between valuing freedom and salvation. God is capable of valuing both to their utmost or God is not Good. And God is Good. (All the time).