Monthly Archives: May 2012

Musing about Freedom from a Bumper Sticker

At a stoplight, I noticed this bumper sticker on the car ahead of me: “I’m proud that my son is fighting for our freedom.”

I think that parent should be very, very proud. I appreciate this son serving in the military to protect and defend our country. I think it’s a calling worthy of high honor.

But as I drove on, I parsed out the words in that bumper sticker. Nothing to criticize that parent or that son. Just some harmless musing by a person who has never worn the uniform, and had some thinking time to fill.

My thoughts focused on the word “freedom.” Is that son really fighting for the freedom of the United States? I decided–and I’m totally open to being wrong about this–that freedom isn’t the issue. Our freedom isn’t threatened by Al Qaeda or the Taliban. No rag-tag bunch of terrorists are going to take over the United States and subjugate the citizenry. Those soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are, to use the famous words from “A Few Good Man,” standing on a wall. In the fight against Al Qaeda, they are protecting us from attack, pursuing an enemy who threatens us with harm.

Frankly, I think Homeland Security is a greater threat to American freedom than anything in Afghanistan. In our post-9/11 frenzy, we ceded a scary amount of authority to the federal government, which can look into our lives in unprecedented ways. We have greatly expanded the government’s right to detain citizens, accumulate information about every facet of our lives, and keep tabs on everything we do. After 9/11, we went way, way overboard.

But, back to our wars.

The Revolutionary War was all about freedom. So was the War of 1812, a war against conquering invaders.

The Mexican-American War, I would say, was a war of aggression on our part. (Not to be confused with the Texas War of Independence, which included the Alamo.) It was basically a land grab.

I’m not sure how to categorize the Civil War. Both sides were fighting for freedom–the North to (at last in part) free the slaves, the South to preserve states rights and their freedom from federal intervention in their affairs.

World War I doesn’t strike me as being about defending our freedom, but it seems to have been in our national interests. Soldiers often die not in defense of freedom, but for other worthy causes which require deadly force. The Great War falls in that zone. World War II, on the other hand, was indeed about freedom…and much more.

What about Korea and Vietnam? In the context of the Cold War, with communism seeking to dominate the world, I can easily make the argument that it was ultimately about freedom. We were trying to keep early dominos from falling, recognizing that the US would be the last domino to topple. At least, that’s how people thought at the time.

The first Gulf War? Our freedom wasn’t threatened, but we were needed to right a terrible wrong (Saddam Hussein’s invasion of helpless Kuwait). And because of our dependence on oil, we had vital strategic interests in that region.

Now we come to Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither, in my book, involved defending our freedom. But that doesn’t mean fighting those wars was invalid.

We plunged into Afghanistan to eliminate a proven threat. We were attacked, and we retaliated.

Iraq was another story. I’m not going to argue whether or not we should have invaded Iraq. I’m just going to say this: it wasn’t about American freedom (remember, it was called Operation Iraqi Freedom). You can make a case, based on the presumption of Hussein building nuclear weapons, that Iraq could cause us immense harm. But take away our freedom? No, that wasn’t at stake.

Now, we’re mostly left with Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda of 9/11 is pretty much gone, vanquished. Now we are primarily fighting in a civil war against the Taliban. In that sense, the bumper sticker isn’t accurate–that son is not fighting to preserve American freedom. He’s fighting another country’s internal war. Which can still be a worthy cause…or not.

But, as I continued driving and thinking about this, I came to a conclusion which affirmed the bumper sticker. Whether or not we are at war, American soldiers are the first line of defense in safeguarding our freedom. Every man or woman who dons the uniform is prepared to defend my freedom. They may not be fighting for our freedom in Afghanistan, but if a threat to American freedom arises, they are ready to stomp it down. A contrarian could argue that the Constitution is our first line of defense of freedom, or perhaps the judicial system. But when push comes to shove, it’s those men and women in uniform, expertly trained to inflict violence, who make the difference.

And so, in a larger sense, that bumper sticker was indeed accurate. They may not be currently fighting for our freedom, but they are prepared and eager to do so. At least, that’s where my musing ended up.

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When God’s People Commit Massacres at God’s Command

I like to search between the lines of Scripture, to think and wonder about biblical stories from fresh angles, searching for meaning and insights which I’ve never heard in sermons. And sometimes, that can be very uncomfortable. I cling tenaciously to a God who is fair, just, and loving. But sometimes, meditating on Scripture–on what exactly happened, and how–can lead to disturbing places.

I recently finished reading through Joshua, and I was struck by this: God repeatedly told the Israelites to massacre people. To wipe out entire towns–men, women, terrified children, even livestock. And babies. Of course, I knew this from a childhood spent in Sunday school. But as an adult I’ve lived in a world where horrific massacres have occurred in my lifetime. I’ve seen and read about these atrocities, stared at the photos, and wondered what kind of people could do that. And here in Joshua, the “what kind of people” are God’s people.

Actual Jews carried out these massacres–Jewish sons and husbands and nephews and brothers. I wonder how it affected them, as they wiped out entire populations of living, breathing people. There was nothing antiseptic about it–no guns to kill at a distance. It was all up close and very personal, with edged weapons and clubs.

Did it bother them? I sure hope so.

Have you thought about that before? About the actual process of killing hundreds of women and children? Have you probed that far between the lines and let your imagination run? The Bible is the story of God and his people. So what can I learn about God from these massacres, and how can I reconcile it with a God who, I firmly believe, is fair, just, and loving?

When those walls of Jericho fell down, the Israelites stormed the city. Jericho’s soldiers would have died fighting or buried in rubble. But then there would have been groups of women and children and the elderly scattered throughout the city, just trying to hide or get away, pleading for mercy. Mothers holding toddlers in their arms. How did the Jews go about killing them? Ever ponder that?

I vividly remember the horror of the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, in 1982, when “Christian” militiamen slaughtered a couple thousand Palestinians, as Israeli forces watched (and fired flares over the camps to illuminate them at night). Women were raped and killed, boys castrated and even scalped, Christian crosses carved into bodies, countless babies and toddlers ripped apart and thrown into piles. I remember, as a young adult, staring at length at the photos of the aftermath.

Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge killed millions in Cambodia during the 1970s. There was the Rwanda genocide in 1994 of nearly a million people. There was Bosnia. Shiites killing Sunnis and Christians in Iraq, and Sunnis doing plenty of the same. And there was My Lai, the very first massacre I remember–small scale by comparison to some of these others, but especially troubling because it occurred at the hands of my own countrymen.

People massacring other people–not in battle, but to exert power and demonstrate hatred.

What would I think if several million Mexicans crossed the Rio Grande to settle in Arizona, and began wiping out everyone in town after town–thousands of people, men, women, and children. Babies. Everyone. What if they rode into Tucson and just killed everybody living there. No exceptions.

As the Nazis swept through Russia, in each city the SS would round up all of the Jews, take them outside the city, and slaughter them. Men, women, children. Town after town, city after city. Hundreds of thousands of people. “Cleansing” the population of Jews.

That’s basically what the Israelites did, under orders from God. Is it okay if it bothers me? If I’m not able to reconcile wholesale slaughter with a fair, just, and loving God? It doesn’t damage my faith or my love for God, whose ways, I realize, are far different from our ways. But it does bother me.

I understand what God was trying to do–to clear the land he had promised his Chosen People, to remove sinful influences, especially idol worship. The fact that they quit before the job was done came back to haunt them later, causing all kinds of problems–idol worship, years of submission and subjugation to Philistines and other peoples. They never fully possessed the land, as God commanded them to do. But you can still call it genocide.

After conquering a town, I assume the Israelites would gather the survivors someplace, and then proceed to kill them. Men sheltering their families. Children clinging to their mother’s gown, crying. Kids watched as other kids, and their parents, and friends, were killed before their eyes…and knowing their turn would come. Imagine the weeping, the hysteria, the screaming for mercy. Imagine the Israelite soldiers who had to ignore it and simply kill, kill, kill.

How did they do it? There was no bullet in the back of the neck, as the Nazis did it to the Jews. Did they slit their throats? Chop off heads? Run them through the heart with a spear or sword? (The Khmer Rouge liked to use a dual bayonet thrust through the heart–one from the front, one from the back.) How did the Israelites carry out these mass slaughters, in town after town? What was their system? When a group of women and children were found huddled fearfully in a bedroom, how did they go about killing them?

Did some soldiers refuse to take part? The book “Ordinary Men” tells the story of a German reserve police battalion that was sent to Poland to assist in exterminating Jews. They would round up Jews, take them to a remote place, break them into small groups, and then execute them group by group. It could take all day. Some Germans never participated; their commanders allowed them to go somewhere else until the killing was done. Others participated for a while, but finally said, “I can’t do this anymore,” and they simply walked away. They would go sit in a jeep, light a cigarette, and try to ignore the gunfire and screaming occurring down that path leading into the forest.

I hope, with all my heart, that the Israelite soldiers were scarred by the experience. That they had nightmares about it. That they sometimes woke up in a cold sweat thinking about the baby they had skewered, or the young boy, or the pregnant mother, or the newlywed couple who thought they had their lives before them. That when a soldier returned home to his own family, seeing his own daughter reminded him of the bawling little girl whose throat he had slit; and seeing his pregnant wife reminded him of the pregnant women and newborn babies whom they had so recently slaughtered at God’s command. I hope these memories stayed with them for the rest of their lives. Because that means they were humans, not psychotic killing machines. I hope they did God’s bidding not because it was enjoyable, but purely out of obedience.

I’m also confident that it bothered God.

Because my God is fair, just, and loving, and does not normally require stuff like this. The fact that I can’t understand it only tells me that there is so much more to learn about God.

I find it interesting that Numbers 19:11 says, “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days.” If you came in contact with a dead body, you had to be isolated, perhaps outside the camp, for seven days. In the case of soldiers, perhaps there was some therapeutic value to this. Rather than wipe out a town of people and then immediately go home to their families, they had a week to decompress from the horrors they had inflicted.

Again–I understand why God commanded the Jews to massacre the Canaanites. And I firmly believe in a God who is fair, just, and loving. Reading Joshua doesn’t change that. I have difficulty squeezing a genocidal God into my “fair, just, and loving” picture, but I know there is a proper place which I can never really comprehend. But although I can’t fully grasp God’s eternal purposes, I can grasp the idea of a young Israelite soldier killing a helpless child who is begging for his life. That happened, over and over. And I don’t think God minds that it bothers me.

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Obama Speaking About His Faith

I get weary of people insisting that President Obama is a Muslim, or of pointing to some public policy stand as proof that he can’t possibly be a Christian. Obama has expressed his Christian faith openly, and perhaps never as clearly as he did in 2008 during the interview with Rick Warren.

Both Obama and McCain were asked the same question–what it meant to them, on a daily basis, to be a Christian. Obama spoke at some length, using biblical concepts and quoting Scripture. McCain simply used some catchwords in saying, “It means I’m saved and forgiven,” and then he told a minimally relevent story from his POW days.

I was impressed with Obama’s response. I realize you can fake this stuff. But I sensed that Obama had a clear understanding of what the Christian faith was about, and expressed it in much the same words that I would use.

Yes, Obama supports pro-choice and gay marriage policies which I don’t consider consistent with my faith (though in the context of public policy in a pluralistic nation, I’m much more lenient). At the same time, there are many Republican stands which I consider inconsistent with my faith–attitudes toward the poor, coddling of the rich, support for torture, anti-environmental stands, and others. Neither party has a monopoly on being biblical.

Anyway, I tracked down a Youtube video of the Warren interview. That’s it above.

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Capital Punishment: No Room for Error

I’ve been against capital punishment since the 1980s. My objections are biblical in nature–not based on a Bible statement clearly forbidding capital punishment, because there isn’t one, but based on biblical principals consistent with the life and teaching of Jesus. Other Christians disagree with my convictions, and that’s fine.

But then there are stories like this from Salon, about three persons executed in recent years in the US who were most likely innocent. This stuff only happens to poor people. Since our judicial system is weighted so strongly against the poor, we have yet another reason for opposing capital punishment.

Can you imagine a rich, or even middle class, American of any race being wrongfully executed?

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How to Create a Kingdom

Last night’s reading included 1 Samuel 10, where Saul is made king. And I mused about the startup costs of having a king.

Before, the Israelites had been a collection of, basically, semi-independent states with no central authority. Not even states–just tribes. A confederation of sorts. Sometimes a “judge” would rally everyone to defeat an enemy, of which there were many. But then they’d go back to doing their own thing in their own territory.

But now, this farmer named Saul had been plucked out of the cornfields and annointed King. But there was no “kingdom” infrastructure. They had a lot of scurrying to do.

  • Where was the King to live? A king needs a palace. Quick–hire an architect!
  • A King needs an entourage–attendants and deputies and cooks for state dinners and a person to hold an umbrella over his head. Maybe a jester or two. That means lots of recruiting and interviewing and vetting and writing of job descriptions.
  • A King needs an expense account.
  • And who is going to pay for all of this? Somehow, they would need to raise money from the people, which meant a tax system.

A Kingdom is a complicated thing. You don’t just snap your fingers and Presto! you have a Kingdom. Lots of startup costs. Lots of stuff to organize from scratch. Kind of like starting a new church, but with pageantry.

Of course, if you’re the King, you can, indeed, pretty much snap your fingers and make things happen. But first, there need to be people within hearing distance of the snapping. I imagine many Israelites wanted to participate, to get in on the ground floor of this new venture, maybe position themselves for knighthood or some profitable skimming. So along with everything else, I suppose you need a patronage system.

When Saul started out, it was just himself and Samuel. This was a big deal for a farmer and an old guy to pull off. I wish the Bible explained how they went about creating a Kingdom. It would have made an interesting case study.

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Books: Vince Flynn Vs. Brad Thor

I decided I couldn’t ignore them anymore–Brad Thor and Vince Flynn. They’ve been big names in the international thriller genre since the new millennium started, but I hadn’t read any of their books. Been too focused on mysteries. They are often mentioned in the same breath. Tributes on books by other thriller writers will say stuff like, “In the same class as Flynn and Thor.” Peas in a pod.

So, at Hydes Books I selected a book by each: Thor’s “Foreign Influence,” and Flynn’s “Act of Treason.” I decided to see just how good these guys are.

Quick conclusion: I like Vince Flynn a whole lot better.

Both authors use a continuing hero, and their series began just a few years apart–Flynn in 1999, Thor in 2002. Flynn’s protagonist is Mitch Rapp. Thor’s guy is Scot Harvath. I have a lot of problems with Harvath.

First, there’s the name. Scot Harvath. What kind of action hero name is that? Here are good action hero names: Jack Reacher, Sean Dillon, Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, James Bond. Scot Harvath–that’s a good name for a banker, or maybe an Olympic swimmer. Not for a kick-butt ex-SEAL. You know a good action hero name? Try “Brad Thor.” Flynn chose a much better name, Mitch Rapp. It’s not a great name, but in a scrape, I’ll take a Mitch Rapp over a Scot Harvath any day.

Brad Thor

Another criticism: Scot Harvath is a sadist. Several times in the book, he engaged in some serious torture. The real maiming type. One time, his victim was a woman. It was totally unnecessary, and it kind of turned my stomach. Mitch Rapp never resorted to torture (at least in this book).

Another criticism: Thor’s book dealt with Muslim extremists, and he used every Muslim stereotype he could think of. Very shallow.

Another criticism: Thor is a darling of right-wing ideologues (like Glenn Beck), and embraces their beliefs–torture, all Muslims are terrorists, etc. This came through clearly in the book I read. It was FoxNews talking points.

On the other hand, Thor’s “Foreign Influence” had a pretty good overall plot with a few interesting characters, in particular a Spanish dwarf. And the book was structured with two threads–one in Chicago, where a cop was unraveling a terrorist plot; the other in Europe, where Scot Harvath was chasing leads in pursuit of terrorist bombers. But there was no intricacy to the plot. Harvath jaunted around Europe, but mostly following one lead at a time–a clue in one city would lead him to another city, where a new clue would lead him to yet another city, where another clue awaited. It was very predictable.

Vince Flynn

But then I read Vince Flynn’s “Act of Treason,” and it was SO much better. The characters were better drawn, the plot was more intricate and included some interested political intrigue, and overall, there was a lot more texture to the writing. Flynn is just a better writer. Flynn, too, is a darling of the right wing, but that didn’t come through in his writing. In fact, he wrote some things which right-wing ideologues wouldn’t like. And Mitch Rapp was just a much more interesting protagonist.

So I’ll keep reading Vince Flynn. He’s good, very good. I’ll give Thor one more chance, but I have low expectations.

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Parting Wise Words from Dick Lugar

Dick Lugar didn’t go quietly into the night. After losing last night’s primary for his Senate seat to a Tea Party guy, Lugar released a lengthy statement giving his thoughts about the polarization which engulfs Washington…and which his opponent, if elected in the fall, will deepen. It was a wonderful statement, filled with common sense counsel. Evan Bayh, in giving up his Senate seat two years ago, said much the same thing. Indiana, then, was blessed with two senators–one Republican, the other Democrat–who were committed to getting things done and to working with the Other Side. But they, Statesmen, have become dinosaurs.

Here is Lugar’s statement. I think it’s well worth reprinting in full. I highlighted a few lines.

Richard Lugar

If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good Senator. But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook. He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it.

This is not conducive to problem solving and governance. And he will find that unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator. Worse, he will help delay solutions that are totally beyond the capacity of partisan majorities to achieve. The most consequential of these is stabilizing and reversing the Federal debt in an era when millions of baby boomers are retiring. There is little likelihood that either party will be able to impose their favored budget solutions on the other without some degree of compromise.

Unfortunately, we have an increasing number of legislators in both parties who have adopted an unrelenting partisan viewpoint. This shows up in countless vote studies that find diminishing intersections between Democrat and Republican positions. Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country. And partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race, are determined to see that this continues. They have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise. If that attitude prevails in American politics, our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we have witnessed during the last several years. And I believe that if this attitude expands in the Republican Party, we will be relegated to minority status. Parties don’t succeed for long if they stop appealing to voters who may disagree with them on some issues.

Legislators should have an ideological grounding and strong beliefs identifiable to their constituents. I believe I have offered that throughout my career. But ideology cannot be a substitute for a determination to think for yourself, for a willingness to study an issue objectively, and for the fortitude to sometimes disagree with your party or even your constituents. Like Edmund Burke, I believe leaders owe the people they represent their best judgment.

Too often bipartisanship is equated with centrism or deal cutting. Bipartisanship is not the opposite of principle. One can be very conservative or very liberal and still have a bipartisan mindset. Such a mindset acknowledges that the other party is also patriotic and may have some good ideas. It acknowledges that national unity is important, and that aggressive partisanship deepens cynicism, sharpens political vendettas, and depletes the national reserve of good will that is critical to our survival in hard times. Certainly this was understood by President Reagan, who worked with Democrats frequently and showed flexibility that would be ridiculed today – from assenting to tax increases in the 1983 Social Security fix, to compromising on landmark tax reform legislation in 1986, to advancing arms control agreements in his second term.

I don’t remember a time when so many topics have become politically unmentionable in one party or the other. Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases. For two consecutive Presidential nomination cycles, GOP candidates competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc. Similarly, most Democrats are constrained when talking about such issues as entitlement cuts, tort reform, and trade agreements. Our political system is losing its ability to even explore alternatives. If fealty to these pledges continues to expand, legislators may pledge their way into irrelevance. Voters will be electing a slate of inflexible positions rather than a leader.

I hope that as a nation we aspire to more than that. I hope we will demand judgment from our leaders. I continue to believe that Hoosiers value constructive leadership. I would not have run for office if I did not believe that.

As someone who has seen much in the politics of our country and our state, I am able to take the long view. I have not lost my enthusiasm for the role played by the United States Senate. Nor has my belief in conservative principles been diminished. I expect great things from my party and my country. I hope all who participated in this election share in this optimism.

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