Monday, February 27, 2006

America as Good Neighbor

I'm shamelessly lifting this content from the This Modern World blog, but the quote is so astounding that it bears repeating.

Jonathan Schwarz:
Wow, this really IS Vietnam

Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, in 2004:
Should national unity prevail, Iraq’s chances of becoming a stable democracy will improve dramatically. I’d like to see one other thing in Iraq, an outbreak of gratitude for the greatest act of benevolence one country has ever done for another.
David Lawrence, editor of US News & World Report, in 1966:
What the United States is doing in Vietnam is the most significant example of philanthropy extended by one people to another that we have witnessed in our times.

I've been thinking about the following analogy for the Iraq war, and these quotes fit quite nicely:

Suppose you live next door to a Muslim family. The husband drinks and sometimes beats his wife, and even killed one of his sons a few years back. There are other, worse families in the neighborhood, but this one has a lot of uncut jewels hidden in their basement. You'd like the local police to do something about it, but you've just spent the last few years undermining institutions that would apply laws across households, since you don't want other neighbors to have any say in what you do in the neighborhood. Also, you bought the guns the guy next door uses to threaten his family, because he used to threaten a different neighbor that you liked less.

You decide it is your job to help this family. So you go next door and shoot the husband execution-style in the front yard, to the horror of most of the neighborhood. You then tell the wife that she is now going to marry your cousin, who is a nice Christian man who won't beat her. In the meantime, you are going to move in and take care of her as a proxy husband.

After you move in, you find that the house is falling apart from neglect and now thieves are coming in freely and stealing anything that isn’t bolted down. You spend all your time rummaging through the family’s finances, protecting the jewels in the basement, and painting the fence outside.

The family is both humiliated at what has happened, and frustrated that they are no longer safe. They react by hitting you every time you come in the house. So, you decide to burn everything in the rooms where you get hit in the most, to teach them a lesson and discourage them from hitting you again. When people tell you to leave, you say it would be dishonorable to leave the family in such a mess, and question their commitment to marriage.

When you finally present the wife with your cousin, she decides instead to marry a strict traditional Muslim instead. She won’t have the same rights she had before, but her new husband will definitely get you out of the house. The kids can't agree on whether this new husband is a good idea or not, and are so freaked out by everything that has happened in their life, that they start shooting each other.

And Fred Barnes comes strolling along, notices the fresh paint on the fence, and chastises the wife for not being more grateful to you for all of your

Friday, February 24, 2006

Article on Bush Speechwriter

There was an interesting (and long) article in the New Yorker last week about Michael Gerson, George Bush’s chief speechwriter.

I was struck by how sincere his faith seems to be, and also the sincerity with which he wants to contribute to the problems of poverty and AIDs. And, yet, like Bush, there is just a stark disconnect between these stated desires and the actual policies he supports.

He gives full support to war, even though pre-emptive war is decidedly against most everything Jesus preached. He sincerely believes that tax breaks for the rich are the best way to help poor people, despite the fact that it is bankrupting the government and causing major funding shortages for programs that the poverty stricken need, (and also ties our hands in getting real health care reform going).

I thought this quote was very revealing, where he is talking about how little money there is for AIDS and other programs he wants to see: “we’re living in a different budgetary situation than we were in 2003, when the President could announce a fifteen-billion-dollar AIDS initiative, and that’s just a reality. There’s nothing that anyone can do about that, and I can’t change that.”

No kidding.Life is about choices. You can’t claim to be compassionate to the poor and then spend all your money on war and tax breaks, and then say “Oh well, all the money’s gone. We’d like to help, really we would, but it’s just beyond our control.”

I get so incredibly frustrated with well-meaning Christians who, although very sincere in their faith, are so blind to the moral results of their own actions. It doesn’t bother me as much when the Karl Roves and Dick Cheneys of the world do this sort of thing, because we all know they are just interested in political power. But when Gerson and Bush (who is apparently a sincere Christian) do it, it gives religious backing to evil deeds, and makes Jesus a servant of belligerence and greed.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Where Should Power Reside?

The “Two Kingdoms” book I mentioned earlier made me think a little differently about political power in relation to liberalism and conservatism, which is quite impressive, given how calcified my thoughts have been in that area over the last few years.

Liberalism and conservatism has often been portrayed as a conflict between federal power and “state’s rights” over the last few decades. I’ve been supportive of federal power over the years, mostly in support of civil rights, a security net for those in need, and as a check to the unbridled greed that capitalism seems to encourage. Government can be a force for good in these areas, even if it overreaches at times. The “states rights” version of conservatism (popular until 5 years ago) always struck me as a reaction against these ideals, and seemed to reduce it to “freedom from responsibility to others”.

What caught my attention in the “Two Kingdoms” book is how state power has changed warfare in the last century from one of simply two armies engaging each other, to one of the Modern Total Warfare State, where every aspect of the economy and society is used to engage in and pursue war.

The trajectory of Mennonite conservatism is related to all this, as it started out as a “leave us alone so we can worship God without being tortured” kind of reaction against state power, and later became a reaction against the kind of federal power required to engage in the modern total warfare state. Mennonites today are an interesting mix of conservative and liberal – loyally committed to service to others and officially supportive of peacemaking (although sometimes that wavers in local congregations). They can vary widely in their political views, and sometimes they just mirror the arguing that happens in national politics and the “culture wars”.

In any case, freedom of religious expression and opposition of the total warfare state are good reasons to be wary of federal power, and it made me realize that the issue isn’t where power is located, but how that power is used. Distributing power to states only works if those states don’t abuse their own citizens (say by fire-hosing them when they demand equal treatment under the law). Federal power can be an antidote to this, but concentrating power at the top allows things like unnecessary wars on countries that are not threats to us. In the end, I don’t think liberals and conservatives really care where the power resides, as long as their social policies are the ones being enacted.

So, there’s no good answer. Power is just inherently corrupting, as anyone who has read Lord of the Rings knows (especially when it comes in ring form). The paradox is that you need great power to affect great change for the better, and in doing so, you inevitable become corrupt.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Ever-Pervasive Wider Culture

I’ve been reading “Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America” by Perry Bush, one of the required texts for the Biblical Foundations of Peace & Justice class I’m taking this semester.

I don’t know if the book would be interesting to non-Mennonites, but it has really helped provide me with a solid context for modern Mennonite thought, and has also been a reminder of how modern culture has become so pervasive. A hundred years ago, Mennonites and other groups could remain in isolated enclaves with very different values and customs from the rest of society. Now, everyone engages and interacts with the wider culture, and it is very hard to retain values that go against that wider culture.

For instance, the values of non-violence and simple living are extremely hard to maintain within the wider cultural values of mass consumerism and militarism that are so powerful today. I was struck that if we are not careful, it would only take one generation for our peace witness to go the way of simple dress and Quaker use of “Thee and Thou”. We can’t merely tread water on cultural issues that we think are harmful – we have to actively swim upstream or we will simply be carried down the river. And even if we are able to tread water, our children will not if we are not actively engaging them and teaching them these values.

On the other hand, interaction with the wider culture can also bring about positives. When Mennonites were forced out of their isolation, they discovered others in the world who had great need, and as a result, felt that they had a Christian obligation to respond with service to those needs. Even later, they found that merely doing individual acts of service to others was not entirely enough. You can help people best by being in a continuing relationship with them, and also by advocating for social policies that reduce their needs in the first place.

Anyway, as someone who grew up immersed and embraced by American middle-class white culture, it was illuminating to see how easy it is to lose positive aspects of smaller communities in the wider culture, and how hard it is to attempt to move the wider culture in better directions.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Why Mennonite?

Some people may be thinking: Dan, I knew you in [high school] [college] [just a few years ago], and you were vaguely [Catholic] [Agnostic] [Unitarian] [Quaker] at the time and not terribly pious. What’s with the whole Mennonite self-identification thing? Is this some kind of over-reaction to finally being able to grow some facial hair?

Sadly, no, I am still unable to properly grow facial hair. I think one of my ancestors must have some secrets about who, exactly, they procreated with.

But, yes, I do self-identify as a Mennonite these days. In fact, I would be a card-carrying Mennonite, if they issued cards. (This is actually a little joke about Mennonite registration. See Anabaptists, History Of, for why you should be rolling on the ground laughing hysterically right about now.)

Here’s how’s those pesky Mennonites got their claws into us: We wandered into a Mennonite church eight years ago just looking for the More With Less Cookbook, assuming that they would have some sort of money-changing table in the sanctuary where you could buy the book, and maybe also get some discounts on indulgences, since we heard that Mennonites were pretty cheap.

Instead, we were surprised to hear a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount. And, not just one, but a whole series of sermons over the next few months, focusing on how Christians should be servants to others and maintain an attitude of mutual respect and humility. I was so disappointed. I had all but given up on Christianity, due to its proclivity to turn its followers into self-indulged, judgmental hypocrites, and now I would have to re-examine this beloved stereotype.

With their toleration for my more inclusive world views, I’ve learned that there can be a voice within Christianity for service, simple living, peace and justice, and a witness against militarism and the “redemptive” violence that so permeates our culture today. Mennonites aren't the only denomination with these values, but they were at the right place at the right time for me. Plus, they don’t wear those “simple” (i.e. unattractive) clothes anymore, and they sure can cook and sing.

I’m obviously not an “ethnic” Mennonite. This merely means that I don’t have an Otto or Yoder as a relative, and when I meet other Mennonites, they usually don’t try to figure out if they are related to me. This is a good thing, since “Schreiber” is a tip off that my German ancestors probably oppressed their Anabaptist ancestors somewhere along the way, or at least transcribed the orders to do so.

Instead I’m calling myself a “Modern” Mennonite, because it fits, alliteratively speaking, and because I want a way to exclude ethnic Mennonites in casual conversations.

For example:

Random Ethnic Mennonite, engaging me in conversation: “Oh, you’re from Champaign. Are you related to Eli/Harold/Peter Otto/Yoder/Kaufman/Dyck?”.
Me: “No, I’m a Modern Mennonite”.

Disclaimer: Please don’t mistake anything I say in this blog as being typical, representative, characteristic, standard, reliable, trustworthy or authoritative on Mennonite theology, beliefs, principles, opinions, views, policies, politics, affairs, traditions, practices, customs, rituals, ceremonies, or habits. I just like calling myself a Mennonite, that’s all.

That said, it is totally true that a “real” Mennonite believes every letter, stroke, and mark in the Mennonite Confession of Faith and will punch you in the nose if you challenge them or disagree. But secretly, most of them like the Vision Statement a lot more.

My own views will be left as an exercise to readers of the blog.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

My Blog

There are approximately 18 billion blogs in the world (about 3 per living person, not to mention ones for pets and dead people). As historian Will Durant said about his tome on Napoleon: “Why add to the heap?”

My main reasons for not starting one thus far are:

  1. It takes work, and deep down I’m basically a lazy person who would rather just watch the Daily Show.
  2. It’s not clear what is advantageous about preserving for all time thoughts and ideas that my descendents will likely just be embarrassed about.
  3. Like 17.9999999 billion other blogs, it would only be read by internet search engines. I’m pretty sure I could get my brother Tim to read it, but I’m not even so sure about my wife Jill, since she always just shakes her head in confusion and dismay whenever I write letters to the editor.

But, writing is becoming an increasingly satisfying hobby for me, and I may as well get feedback from friends (or Tim) on pieces if I’m going to continue to do it. The News Gazette will only print one letter a month (unless you are especially good at it, like my friend Greg Springer), and I usually need to comment about my concern for the state of the world more often than that (where concerned here means angry or frustrated or astounded).

I’m also taking a class this spring on the Biblical Foundations of Peace & Justice at AMBS, and I’ll have a lot of reading and regurgitating to do, so I may as well let the search engines read what I’ve learned. They probably get tired of indexing what people had for breakfast anyway.