Friday, October 26, 2007

For the Birds

President Bush went fishing this weekend. In his weekly radio address, he told us that fishing not only builds memories but also adds billions of dollars to the economy. While he went on to outline some initiatives regarding the environment, it is telling that he started by making an economic case for the actions. Too often in our national conversation the only way to advance a cause is to show that there is more benefit than cost. But sometimes the greater good has no dollar value.

Thankfully, the president seemed to understand that point when advancing the plan to expand the National Wildlife Refuge program. He highlighted migratory birds as a reason for increased funding. Habitat loss is a critical concern for migratory species. Economic concerns argue in favor of managing habitat for migratory waterfowl that are hunted since that is regulated by the federal government and thus and includes gathering revenue from licenses and fees. Perhaps, the president is motivated by unconditional concern for vulnerable non-game species, or by the boon to the economy offered by the burgeoning birdwatching community. We may never know, but there is hope that threatened species will benefit.

The larger question in this discussion is the ethical one, that is, how shall we find the motivation to protect the vulnerable who have no economic stake? Unconditional concern for the other, particularly those others with whom we have little or no connection is rare to find. No doubt this is why faith traditions strive to nurture this high ideal, we don't seem to come by it naturally. Enlightened self-interest where we can see that something might return to us is at least one step in this process. We need to see that there is potential value in saving all the current resources of the earth for our children and their children. Then we need to see that there is no good distinction to be made between our children and the children of other people. In fact, if we open up more fully to true unconditional concern we might discover that even seemingly insignificant birds might be worthy of our efforts.

Maybe we need to save the birds simply for the inspiration they provide. A recent Mutts comic sums it up. .. Maybe we should try to learn that lesson as well. If we could begin to free ourselves from a primary concern for gathering and protecting stuff perhaps we could find the freedom of flight into a future where generosity by all will mean scarcity for none.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

One Person's Heaven

Ann Coulter has once again stirred controversy with her comments. This time it was a comment that her dream of a perfect America is a place where we are all Christians happily defending America. The comments were made on CNBC's The Big Idea. When pressed by host Donny Deutsch, Coulter said that yes, she would throw out Judaism. She explained her belief that Christians are “perfected Jews” who desire that Jews be perfected because, although they will get to heaven through obedience to the law, they could be on the “fast track” if they became Christians. Deutsch, a practicing Jew, made it clear to Coulter that her glib comments had offended him personally. She seemed almost incredulous that he didn't see her point as generous not onerous.

With all due respect to Deutsch, who rightly suggests the best solution is to ignore her, there is value in examining both Coulter's behavior and thoughts. She presented an interesting theological position. Though she didn't explain it, the way she used the word perfected theologically. In the minds of the writers of the New Testament, to be made perfect meant to be completed. Indeed, traditionally Christianity views Jesus as the completion of the covenant God made with the Hebrews. In this sense, Christians can be called perfected Jews. Also, since Christians are instructed to share this good news with others, it would make sense that Coulter thought she was offering a gift not an offense. Granted, Deutsch did not receive this as good news. Coulter's insensitivity to his position and lack of regard for how her comments might be received by the general public both expose her need to behave more politely and leads to reasonable accusations of antisemitism. We may ignore Coulter's inflammatory statements, but the view she espoused and the nerve she hit cannot be ignored. Many Christians believe that their brand of Christianity is the only true path to salvation and thus would only fault Coulter, if at all, on her style but not her substance. While other Christians have come to accept that the same God whom they worship could never break the original covenant with the Jews and so respect them by not attempting to convert them.

Political correctness has arisen as a way of peacefully coexisting in a pluralistic society. Unfortunately, this type of oversensitive vigilance can also fuel bigotry by forcing it underground. Simply biting one's tongue is insufficient when the heart remains unchanged. True sensitivity to the other begins with self-examination. When religion claims an exclusive path or a corner on the truth then anything that passes for tolerance of other truth claims is little more than lip service, or at least something less than true acceptance. What if we approached truth as something we only ever partially possess, but always seek? Perhaps then we could believe as Mohandas Gandhi believed that there are many paths up the mountain of truth, so it doesn't matter that someone is on the other side of the mountain. Unfortunately, Ann Coulter's heaven would be Gandhi's hell.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Resisting Evil

The recent expose in the New Times about secret endorsements of severe interrogation techniques once again forces us as Americans to consider whether torture not only has been, but quite possibly continues to be committed in our name. Clearly, the current administration has been walking a fine semantic line between so-called “enhanced” techniques and blatantly illegal torture. Does it take a trained legal mind to name as torture practices such as keeping a person in prolonged darkness or cold, or denied food, or kept naked, or slapped in the head, or strapped to a board and drenched with water to simulate drowning? Perhaps just the opposite is the case, that it takes a team of lawyers to find a way to call it something other than torture.

Whether called enhanced interrogation or torture, the practice is illogical. If an enemy believes that capture leads to torture the incentive to surrender evaporates. A torture victim with no knowledge still has the incentive to provide information and thus will provide the interrogator with bad intelligence, leading to a need for more torture. The enemy with knowledge who is willing to die for his or her cause will never provide actionable intelligence regardless of the amount of torture.

A simple moral restraint is comes by considering that our actions against others open the door to the same treatment of our soldiers when captured. One way to find exemption from Golden Rule morality is to believe that the other is somehow incapable of good. This sort of reasoning also helps to maintain the illusion that torture has never been condoned by the authority structure, but is the result of a few “bad apples.” Phillip Zimbardo exposes this myth in his book, “The Lucifer Effect.” In 1971 he discovered the power of systemic evil in his landmark Stanford Prison Experiment. In the course of a single week in a mock prison with college-aged men pre-screened to assure their mental health he created a situation where unprovoked, but also unrestrained, the guards psychologically abused the prisoners. These young men were not evil, but they committed evil acts. Zimbardo admits that his participation in the creation of this situation was likewise evil. In human rights and war crime law this is known as command responsibility. So far in the investigations of prisoner abuse no one has been charged with command responsibility. In a democracy, there is a certain command responsibility that each citizen bears once the truth is exposed.

Zimbardo's research shows that under carefully constructed circumstances that include assurances from authority figures, relative anonymity and peer pressure most people can be persuaded to perform ghastly deeds. This explains how prison guards can be recruited from the general population to execute fellow humans in concentration camps. With the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity so pervasive in American religious practice accepting the possibility that each of us individually and all of us collectively are capable of evil ought to be easy. Yet, we so easily find ways to believe that we are always agents of goodness and truth. C. S. Lewis spoke of the battle of the two dogs within each of us, one good and one evil. The dog that wins is the one we feed. We can never be totally free from terror until we learn to resist the evil which lies within.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Politics of Fear

Every year since September 11, 2001, the President has declared and Congress has voted that we continue in a state of emergency. One must wonder what threshold must be met to end this threat. As long as there is an official state of emergency, there is a legitimization of nearly any action identified as an effort in the war on terrorism. Terror alerts, with their accompanying color codes, have never been accompanied by any specific instructions for increasing safety or reducing fear. Imagine a severe storm warning issued by the National Weather Service with the only instructions being “be careful.” Naturally, that would be totally unacceptable. But that is the extent of the instructions given when the terror alert level has been elevated. All that seems to be accomplished is frightening the population. If we are destined to live in a constant state of terror, with the only relief being a lower level, then haven't the terrorists won?

Fear is a powerful way of controlling behavior. Isn't it possible that the government's fear-mongering is designed to distract and control the American populace? It is easy to claim that an unseen threat has been thwarted while continuing to instill fear of a never-ending aggression. Conspiracy theorists take things a step further and claim that terrorist attacks have been staged by our own government seeking to gain this sort of control over its people. While that extreme position requires more evidence than is available, the suggestion that fear-mongering is designed to serve the interests of big business does not seem so far fetched. Consider the fact that the President showed a great concern for the economy following the attack on 9/11 and basically instructed Americans to go to the mall. Consider also that Halliburton, Bechtel and Blackwater are getting richer by the day as long as the war in Iraq continues. Finally, consider the amount of money spent in campaigns for congressional and senatorial seats, let alone the presidency, and the fact that none of those campaigns can be successful without major corporate contributions. Fear-mongering appears to be good for the bottom line.

Not all fear is bad. Fear of fire teaches us not to touch the burner on the stove. Fear teaches us to look both ways before crossing the street. But fear without hope leads to violent means to selfish ends. In our religious traditions, prophets have often attempted to elicit fear of the consequences of continued wrong behavior. But true prophets also provide hope that changed behavior will result in better consequences. What hope is offered by those who call for violent opposition to terrorist threats? If our hope is in a stronger economy that continues to distance us from the suffering of the “Two-Thirds World” then we are relying on a sham promise of safety in wealth that will not bring true and lasting peace. True believers of all traditions should understand that power of love is greater than fear, indeed true faith drives out fear. Perhaps the first step in our recovery from the crippling effects of terror is accepting the truth of President Roosevelt's declaration that all we have to fear is fear itself.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Waging Peace

The war in Iraq has to this point cost over $450 billion. By some estimates, it will cost over a trillion dollars by the time it ends. Huge numbers like these can become almost meaningless in their lack of relativity. With this in mind, the National Priorities Project created a web site,, to break down the massive expenditure into equivalencies.

One way of comprehending this large expenditure is to determine the local contribution. Using federal taxes as a guideline, the five-town Tantasqua region can be understood to have contributed nearly $39 million toward the war so far. Consider what it would have meant if that amount had been invested in education; every single student who has graduated from Tantasqua Regional High School during this time could have had four free years of education at a public university and there would have been money left over to hire a couple dozen new teachers in the school district. If the money had been spent just on hiring teachers there could be well over 100 new teachers locally.

Or consider if social services had been provided. Over 4500 children could have been given free health insurance. A year of Head Start could have been provided for over 5000 children, or there could be 348 new public housing units in our region. All of these amounts are surely much more than our region needs. Take your town budget and make your own list for construction and repair of properties and infrastructure or salaries of town employees.

In this ever-shrinking world it is unethical to think only of ourselves. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals are a plan to reduce extreme poverty by half by 2015 as well as address other dire situations such as reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS. This is a battle worth waging with an estimated cost of only $40 to $60 million a year. By using the biblical principle of tithing, America could fund this effort alone with just 10% of the Pentagon budget. If outspending the “Axis of Evil” 40 to 1 militarily is not making the world safer, perhaps it is time to take seriously the religious demand of charity and use our greatest resources, our wealth and generosity, to make a real difference in the world. If in place of waging war on terror we had decided to wage peace, America might now be engendering respect around the world instead of the fear and loathing that militarism brings. Terrorists rely on the cover provided by fearful or sympathetic populations and governments. Waging peace removes that cover by addressing the fear of want and changes sympathies by generosity instead of at the end of the barrel of a gun. Waging war creates martyrs for terrorist causes and reinforces the image of America as a dominant aggressor. Compared to the high cost of war, peace is a bargain. Isn't it about time we start at least shifting some of our vast resources and give peace a chance?