Monday, September 21, 2009

Thoughts on War, Peace and Justice

I have a commitment to work for peace and justice. At the very least I feel I must keep those promises of the Kingdom alive in my conversations. The Practical Commitments of the Church of God instruct us to “speak out on clear-cut moral issues.” They add we have an obligation to correct social injustice and protect the sanctity of life.

Love for others and the recognition of the equal worth of all men in the sight of God (Acts 10:34; 17:26) should compel us to take steps to improve the situation of those who are underprivileged, neglected, hungry, homeless and victimized by prejudice, persecution and oppression (Matthew 22:39; Romans 13:8-10; 1 John 3:17). In all of our dealings, we must be sensitive to human needs (Luke 10:30-37; James 1:17) and guard against racial and economic discrimination. Every person should have freedom to worship and participate in the life of the church regardless of race, color, sex, social class or nationality.

God alone confers life (Genesis 1:1-31); therefore, we are responsible to God to care for our physical life and that of others. If the circumstances require, we must be prepared to risk our life in the service of our neighbor (John 15:13); but the general rule is that we must respect our physical life and employ every worthy means to maintain it.

In the early decades of our existence the Church of God was strongly committed to pacifism; members could not “bear arms.” As a result of World War II we shifted our position to one that endorsed personal conscience as grounds for combative service in the military but with wording that specifically supported those who conscientiously objected to bearing arms. In my childhood there was still a strong element of pacifism in the church. My adolescence was bracketed by the war in Viet Nam.

I was filled with the Spirit seven months before my eighteenth birthday and registration for the military draft. My Dad was saved one month before I had to register. I approached the draft with a dilemma of conscience. I did not believe I could serve as a military combatant, but I was convinced that if I registered as a conscientious objector it would be a stumbling block for my father in his walk with God. After much prayer I opted to just register and trust God. I knew everything would be alright.

Over the years I have often reminded congregations the Church of God teaches “nations can and should resolve their differences without going to war.” My posture has always been to question the justice of any given war. I have openly opposed or questioned all of the wars/military actions of my adult lifetime. During the early days of the war in Iraq I identified myself as a pacifist provided I could qualify the definition as being radically committed to the pursuit of peace. I am a pacifist in the sense that I oppose nations going to war. They “can and should” find another way. War should be the very last resort. Further, I have problems with the “just war” theory because it is too often misappropriated to justify wars that are avoidable.

I believe we should be patriotic. We should love our nation and work for its security and well being. I am convinced the United States of America is the greatest nation in the history of humankind. We have been the most just and merciful of all nations. We have sacrificed more for the good of others than any nation. But I also know we must love Christ and His Kingdom more than our country. I am greatly bothered by an idolatrous nationalism, the rampant confusion of the USA with the Kingdom of God. As great as the USA has been, it is also guilty of great sins against our own citizens and other nations. Our government is supposed to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” There can be nothing more American than to question the wisdom of our governmental leaders. To not question our government on something as grave as war is to be less than American and less than Christian.

I am convinced Christians have an obligation to actively promote peace, in personal, societal, national, and international realms; “blessed are the peacemakers.” However, I do not understand radical pacifism to be the only or best approach to peace and justice. I allow there may be times when the exercise of force, even deadly force, may be the appropriate means of promoting peace and justice. Indeed, it may be the only righteous option. I accept, and endorse, the Church of God position on personal conscience dictating the decision to bear arms in times of war. I regret that many of my fellow baby boomers seem to interpret that ruling as a blanket endorsement of combatant service rather than a call for prayerful discernment. If drafted I would have to serve as a non-combatant on grounds of conscience; I could not commit to follow the commands of others to take lives without regard to the justice of the immediate situation. On the other hand, I could use force, even deadly force, to stop an individual from killing or maiming others if the threat was imminent. I recognize there may be logical difficulties in my position.

In theory I can endorse “just war” but only if we understand war can be just only if failure to go to war would be a grave act of injustice. Perhaps stopping the killing fields of Cambodia or the genocide of Rwanda would have qualified. The current situation in Somalia might as well.

These views often place me in the despised middle, too liberal for most conservatives, too conservative for most liberals. Iraq has been especially isolating for me. I opposed the US led invasion of Iraq. I do not fault the Bush Administration for misinformed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Even the French and Germans said they were there. I fault them on the justice of invasion in light of the fact there was insufficient evidence of an imminent threat from Iraq or from within on its own people. On the other hand, during the war I have opposed calls for the immediate withdrawal of troops; that would have been unjust in that it would have created a situation for a civil war with large scale bloodbaths. Once we invaded the country and dismantled its government we had a moral obligation to create an environment conducive for internal peace. Anything less would be unjust.

Coincidentally, we are not well served by the language of “war on terrorism.” Terrorism is an abstract concept (yes, with all too real consequences). It cannot be defeated anymore than the war on poverty, noble as it was, could be won. A war with a concept is too open ended and can too easily be used as a pretext for unjust war with actual people. We should think of ourselves as being at war with specific terrorist groups. Such a war is just and can be won. Nations that openly ally themselves with terrorist groups would thus be accountable for the actions of those groups.

In summary, as a child of God it is my responsibility to work for peace and justice. I can never abdicate that duty. This requires that I call into question all uses of force to suppress the freedom of people and measure the use of force on the scales of justice. It does not require that I condemn all uses of force. For me, to participate in war with all of its ramifications would be to abandon my higher calling of working for peace. It would inevitably put me in conflict between obedience to Caesar and obedience to Christ. Thus, even if I felt the war was just I could only serve as a noncombatant.

That’s the way I see it on Monday, September 21, 2009.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tears: A Biography

I don't think I have posted this before. It comes from a time over two decades ago when God was in a breaking and melting mood.


Glistening drops of liquid gold
Announcing stories begging to be told

Cantankerous, salty little drops
Refusing to come, refusing to stop

Each one a prisoner of my heart
Seeking opportunities to start

Wanting to escape from me
Return to their mother the sea

When I was a little child
My heart was tender and mild

Tears were always there
In touch with my every care

I cried when I had a scrape
And when they removed the bandage tape

I cried when I wanted my way
Begging to go or seeking to stay

I cried when I’d said all I could
Longing simply to be understood

I cried when I felt rejected
Hungering to be accepted

Tears were always there
As normal as breathing air

Warm, then cold upon my cheek
Freedom from them I could not seek

All I could do was bury my head
Deep into the spread on my bed

Desperately wanting someone to care
Yet strangely content in my solace there

Ashamed of my childish tears
Overwhelmed by inner fears

Then it happened, how, I can’t explain
I suddenly knew I could refrain

I took control of my inner strife
Discovered a whole new life

When I felt my eyes begin to burn
I held my breath, a simple trick I learned

I assured myself I didn’t have to cry
I could hold it in until I die

Before long it wasn’t even a fight
I had my emotions bottled tight

Latter I discover the trauma of being a “man”
Emotions are essential to being human

I may have locked them in
But what did I really win?

When I stopped my tears and gained control
I closed the windows of my soul

I locked myself inside a cage
Outer peace, inner rage

Only God could set me free
So I gave them all to him, exposed the inner me

Now tears may trickle or come in a flood
They’re a part of me, they’re in my blood

December, 1988

Friday, September 18, 2009

Thoughts on Getting Older

“Boys, if I live to be an old woman, I don’t have long to live.” That’s what my great-grandmother Nettles told my father and his brother Woodrow. At the time they were young boys and she was a widower in her early sixties. I heard my dad tell that vignette several times throughout my life. The first few times Great Granny Nettles was still living. She lived to just a few months short of her one hundredth birthday and although I didn’t see her often I remember her well.

She was a Bible loving, foot-washing, loud-singing, shouting, “Hard-shell” Primitive Baptist, one of the elect in a religious world of double predestination. The grand-daughter of an Indian Chief, Billy Bowlegs, she grew up on Billy’s Island in the Okefenokee Swamp. I don’t remember her ever talking to me. I have shadows of recollections of her patting me on the head and saying things about me (“he’s a cotton top” kind of things). Mostly, I remember her as the center of the universe whenever she was present. Everyone seemed to hang on her every word and revolve around her every move. Someone said she never worked a day in her life, at least not after her daughters got old enough to take care of her. Whatever the case, they were devoted to her.

Today is my fifty-sixth birthday (her birthday was this week as well – 143rd I think) and I have reflected on how that comment to my dad has affected me over the years. When I was young it was a humorous story about how even adults could miss judge reality; Dad always chuckled when he told it. “My goodness she’s lived a lifetime since she said that,” I would think. For most of my adult life it has served as an illustration of the stages of human development, integrity vs. despair. Today it serves as a very different point of reference. If I live to be an old man, I don’t have many years to live.

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not depressed about my age. I am probably more up-beat than I have been in years. I simply have a different perspective on time and age. As I grow older there are fewer uncertainties in my life, making room for more expectations. I think about heaven more than ever. My thoughts of the celestial city are decreasingly material (apartments, streets and gates) and increasingly relational. What a glorious promise that we shall know as we are known.

A few months ago I had an interesting notion. In recent years I have thought more and more about how wonderful it will be to see my loved ones who are already there. One day as I prayed for my children, their husbands and my grandchildren it dawned on me that I will probably have greater joy seeing them in heaven than seeing my loved ones who have gone before me. Perhaps I will have greater joy seeing those I have influenced toward heaven then those who influenced me. For those who helped me I will be thankful and overflowing with joy; heaven will certainly be a reunion with those we love. But life is lived forward; it is by its very nature purposive. We who are in Christ are living toward the glory of God and our contribution to His glory will be our conformity to His image, the lives we have lived, and the persons we have influenced.

A parallel transition in my thinking is that those whom I am influencing toward heaven are before or in front of me. That is, in the continuum of time they are between me and Heaven. I may get there first, but their lives are closer to the return of Christ and the fulness of time. {Then again according to Paul they will not get there before us. The dead in Christ will first rise.) They are not behind me being pulled into eternity. They are before me being nurtured toward God. The significance for me is that my role in life is before me. Regardless of the time allotted to me by God, my life is full if I am journeying with others toward Him. However many years I have before me in this life, may they be measured not in weeks or months or decades, but in the riches I lay up in heaven, riches first planted in the lives of those I am nudging toward God.

In Christ the best is always yet to come.

Monday, September 14, 2009


There a few things on my mind about the healthcare debate. First, I am troubled by the “you lie” incident during the President’s speech on healthcare. I am troubled that our President was intentionally misleading us. The Democrats in Congress had already acted to remove provisions to screen out undocumented immigrants. The President’s words may have been accurate, but they were misleading. I am troubled that an elected member of Congress would demonstrate such lack of control and disrespect for others. [I am myself given to inappropriate audible expressions of “Lord help us” when I am frustrated with events in public worship.] This isn’t England where they have universal healthcare and members of Parliament are expected to shout out objections to speeches: apologies given, apologies accepted, stereotypes reinforced, Democrats gain ground, and the beat goes on.

I am troubled by what appears to be a growing animosity toward undocumented immigrants. I am a conservative because I am convinced sin is a present reality that must be resisted [the problems of society can not be solved by simply throwing money at them; I say “resisted” because I am speaking of social order and not soteriology which calls for a more comprehensive approach to sin] and because I believe we have a responsibility to preserve and pass on the core values of our heritage. Among those values is personal liberty from an intrusive government. I am alarmed at the left’s absence of concern for this fundamental American value. On the other hand, I am more alarmed at the hatred I hear coming from the right. The founders of our great nation built their political philosophy on a declaration that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Recognizing that immigration is a complex issue and that we are a society governed by laws, I must assert there is a higher law than that established by legislative bodies. That law demands that we love aliens, strangers, and even our enemies. The Word of God is clear, we have an obligation to care for the weak, the oppressed, the widowed, and orphans and the “alien that lives among” us. We must separate our attitudes about poor imigration laws and practices from our affections for the immigrant among us. We will be judged by God for how we treat them. How vile is it to segragate children whose only crime is that their parents entered this country without documentation, to cut them off from the fundamentals of education and healthcare? We will reap what we sow.

In my conservative opinion, I do not want a healthcare system where I must present documentation of legal residency before I get treatment. [I am for this reason concerned about a national digitized system of medical records. The system might save money, but if it is under government control we are losing freedom to save money.] I do not want a system that by its very nature segragates people into those with rights for health care and those without those rights, especially children. True conservatives value life and human dignity; they struggle for justice and equality in the eyes of the law. True conservatives do not scapegoat the weakest amongst us for purposes of personal security.

If we do not have a resurgence of compassionate conservativism (the only real conservativism) in the GOP I will have to withdraw from the two-party system.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Obama's Speech on Health Care

President Obama’s speech to the joint houses of Congress last evening highlighted his considerable strengths and a couple of his inconsistencies. In it he demonstrated his great skills in oration. He also exposed his pragmatic approach to politics. For what it’s worth, I thought it was an excellent speech and I agreed with most of the points he raised.

I agree “it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t…” I appreciate his even handed assessment of the political wrangling in congress. ”Some have dug into unyielding ideological camps that offer no hope of compromise… a blizzard of charges and counter charges…”

His stated goals are laudable: provide security and stability for those who have health insurance, provide insurance for those who don’t, and slow the growth of healthcare costs.

His proposals for laws to protect the insured from unjust practices by the insurance companies are long overdue. I would like to see him add a law to ensure that once someone has insurance they can remain a member of that group for as long as they wish (and pay the premiums), i.e, once they get a policy with a group they can never be expelled from that group even if they loose their job.

However, in addressing those who have insurance it is misleading for him to say, “Nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.” The contents of the plan might not require a change but the fruit of the plan might make it inevitable. However healthcare is overhauled it will result in major changes for most Americans. His plan may well create an environment where companies cannot afford to compete with a government sponsored program.

To the degree I understand the concept an “insurance exchange” it sounds great. As a conservative, I would prefer such a program be run as a non-government, non-profit co-op (love those hyphenated words). In fact there could be multiple co-ops, sort of like credit unions. The articles of incorporation for these non-profits could require them to accept any applicant fitting their demographic/geographic designation. The government could provide vouchers for the poor.

And as I wrote last year, I agree with Obama that it is time we move to mandatory health insurance. Persons without insurance create an unnecessary risk to society, warranting this intrusion on our personal freedoms. [If they get sick or have an accident they will be treated and the rest will pay for it.] The only exception I could imagine would be for those who for reasons of religious faith refuse medical care. However, I would prefer the individual states be incentivized to pass such legislation.

My difficulties with the speech are two fold: the fiscal viability of the plan and the occasional combative tone. The nebulous numbers just don’t add up. I don’t believe this plan will only cost a trillion dollars over ten years. I don’t believe the projected savings will be as great as he promises. I don’t believe once programs are put in place Congress will live within the financial restraints the President wants put into place.

Concerning the tone, I am referring both to his presentation and the content. He was at times a little too forceful in his presentation but that may just be me. Certainly his delivery was effective in communicating his passion for this project. In content he stepped over the line on at least one occasion. As I noted last fall in a discussion on negative political advertisements, Obama has mastered the art of making his opponents look guilty while his practices are the same as theirs. I am referring to his denunciation of those prominent politicians [a.k.a. Sarah Palin] who he said have lied in saying his plan would “set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens.” I have no need to defend Sara Palin; I find her guilty of fear mongering (not always a bad thing). The language I have heard her use is “creation of death panels” which will determine who gets treatment. The argument is that these panels will determine whether grandma gets treatment to prolong life at the expense of others who might be able to live longer, more productive lives. My point is I have not heard a prominent politician say the plan will create a bureaucracy with power to “kill off senior citizens.” The distinction may seem insignificant but I find it troubling. Obama is calling for civilized discussion that avoids lies and distortions. His reframing of the language of others exaggerates their statements in a pejorative way. In short, he is misrepresenting their misrepresentation of him. At the very least it calls into question his commitment to an open and civil dialogue.

I offer some final observations. The speech skillfully incorporated concepts and proposals from persons across the political spectrum creating an illusion of compromise and cooperation. It is interesting to me that one of the least specific of his proposals was a gratuitous reference to tort reform. As I re-read the paragraph it hit me he made no real commitment for change. I also find his appeal to the character of America revealing; our history is one of fierce commitment to freedom and compassion. This tension thrusts us into a quest for the proper balance for government control and personal freedom. It demands we change by solving our problems or we will “loose something essential about ourselves.” He is a true pragmatist with a nod toward Hegel’s dialectic. The most revealing paragraph of his speech (I think) is here given in entirety.

“You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter -- that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.”

Finally, having listened to and read the speech I am struck with how little I know about the details of the various bills bouncing around Congress. Will the bureaucracies be enlarged? What powers to control our personal medical options will be delegated to boards and commissions? I would that this was simply a debate about whether to provide health insurance to those who can not afford it; I could support that (but then again we already have Medicaid). If it was simply about insurance reform I might could get a better handel on the debate. But this is about all aspects of our healthcare system and no one seems to know everything that is being proposed. How can I endorse this plan when I don't even know what is in it? How can I not be leery of an unknown plan that might drastically change our society in undetemined ways? What I need now is not a speech to convince me to trust the President and Congress to implement the appropriate change for our times; what I need is a good, open, honest description of the changes being proposed. I am not getting it from the left or the right.