Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Karen Armstrong Interview

Karen Armstrong is always the bridesmaid in my trips to bookstores. I often almost buy one of her books while browsing (A History of God, Through the Narrow Gate, The Battle for God), but always leave the store with some other trendier, sexier book in tow instead. Then I wake up feeling cheap and unfulfilled the next day.

There’s a great interview with her in Salon at
You may need to sign up for a one day pass at Salon to read the interview.

Here’s an excerpt:

You're saying these ancient sages really didn't care about big metaphysical systems. They didn't care about theology.

No, none of them did. And neither did Jesus. Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the trinity or original sin or the incarnation, which have preoccupied later Christians. He went around doing good and being compassionate. In the Quran, metaphysical speculation is regarded as self-indulgent guesswork. And it makes people, the Quran says, quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian. You can't prove these things one way or the other, so why quarrel about it? The Daoists said this kind of speculation where people pompously hold forth about their opinions was egotism. And when you're faced with the ineffable and the indescribable, they would say it's belittling to cut it down to size.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Paradox of Power Sermon

Here's the text for the sermon I delivered today at First Mennonite in Urbana. Note that it was written to be read aloud. Comments and arguments are most welcome :)

Friday, May 26, 2006

It takes 47 seconds to be corrupted by power

First Mennonite has gone to the bottom of the barrel during Pastor Larry's sabbatical, and asked me to deliver the message this Sunday. Posts have been light here because I've been working on my sermon, which I'll post here next week.

In the meantime, enjoy this cartoon from Reuben Bolling:

Monday, May 22, 2006

Paradox of Peace

Sometimes I think life is simply a series of paradoxes that God uses for entertainment to befuddle us. Here is a good one from James Loney, one of the Christian Peacemaker Team members who was kidnapped and held captive in Iraq a few months ago.

Loney gave an Easter sermon entitled "From the Tomb", where he describes his capitivity. It is well worth the read, and isn't very long - see

Here’s an excerpt:

I am learning many things from my captivity, and have a universe of things to be grateful for. Among them is a new and deep appreciation for the women and men who wear the uniform of military service. I likely would not be writing this today if it were not for them. Thus, I am confronted with a great paradox. I, the Christian pacifist peacemaker, am alive, am free because of the very institutions I believe are contrary to Christian teaching.

Christ teaches us to love our enemies, do good to those who harm us, pray for those who persecute us. He calls us to accept suffering before we inflict injury. He calls us to pick up the cross and to lay down the sword. We will most certainly fail in this call. I did. And I'll fail again. This does not change Christ's teaching that violence itself is the tomb, violence is the dead-end. Peace won through the barrel of a gun might be a victory but it is not peace. Our captors had guns and they ruled over us. Our rescuers had bigger guns and ruled over the captors. We were freed, but the rule of the gun stayed. The stone across the tomb of violence has not been rolled away.

I'm learning that there are many kinds of prisons and many kinds of tombs. Prisons of the mind, the heart, the body. Tombs of despair, fear, confusion. Tombs within tombs and prisons within prisons. There are no easy answers. We must all find our way through a broken world, struggling with the paradox of call and failure. My captivity and rescue have helped me to catch a glimpse of how powerful the force of resurrection is. Christ, that tomb-busting suffering servant Son of God, seeks us wherever we are, reaches for us in whatever darkness we inhabit. May we reach for each other with that same persistence. The tomb is not the final word.

I’ll be honest and admit that I haven’t totally worked out my own version of pacifism yet. I was always attracted to the idea (and it was one of the things that attracted me to Mennonites), but didn’t know how practical it was. Then this illegal and immoral war happened, and I've been thrust into a pacifist position.

There’s no question that the use of violence taints whoever uses it, and that violence almost always begets more violence. Pacifism as a practice is very good at preventing violence, but once a war starts or a kidnapping happens, it is hard to stop it without being tainted in *some* way. Thus, keeping absolute our very God-centered principles can *sometimes* cause more suffering in the end.

The problem is, most people leap headlong into violence as a solution first, justifying it as necessary to prevent further suffering, without really considering other options. People tend to forget that necessary evils are every bit as soul-threatening as unnecessary ones.

One only need look at the new allegations of outright murder by American soldiers in Haditha, Iraq (see to see the inevitable result of violence as policy.

Friday, May 12, 2006

"Stripped, Beaten & Mocked"

My friend Dannie Otto gave a sermon on April 30th at First Mennonite in Urbana on torture and Chrisitianity. He was against torture and for Christianity. :)

The url for the sermon is here.


This takes me back to the current situation of the 28 Chinese Muslims locked up on Guantanamo. For over a year, our military officials have concluded that they are totally innocent of any connection to terrorism. Why are they still locked up in Guantanamo? “Because they have become infamous”. If released to their homeland China, they will be further persecuted for the Muslim faith. If they are released in the U.S. they will be an embarrassment to our government because they will have free access to the media and their story will become sensationalized. They were made infamous by being brought to Guantanamo and now because they are infamous, they cannot be released.

In the transcripts from Guantanamo, the American interrogators were pressing a prisoner on what it is that he had done wrong: “Surely you have done something to justify this treatment. The American government wouldn’t have locked you up her for two years if you hadn’t done something wrong”. The mistreatment itself becomes the evidence that the mistreatment is justified. One can hear echoes of Pilate telling Jesus, “Tell me what you did to deserve death. You wouldn’t have been arrested and treated this way if you didn’t deserve it.” One has to give credit to Beccaria and like-minded persons who argued against torture on these grounds and gradually also convinced the church to oppose its use. It took several centuries but eventually a consensus was reached that civilized nations don’t do torture.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Why We Are Angry

After the election in 2004, I alternated between anger and depression. It isn't that I thought John Kerry would be such a great president, or that he would be able to clean up much of the mess created over the preceding four years. It was that a majority of voters in this country, in choosing George Bush, also chose pre-emptive war based on fear, tax cuts that go largely for the wealthy, continuted environmental degradation, and a host of other choices that undermined our national values. It was a triumph of fear, greed and ideology over fact, science, and law. That so many people could vote for Bush again, after seeing and experiencing the results of his disastrous policies, was simply unfathomable to me.

I've calmed down some over the last year and half. After all, this is politics - it isn't like there is an evil side and a good side. Right now, there is a corrupt side and a bumbling, wishy-washy, too-afraid-to-offend-anyone side. Electing Democrats will make the country a less corrupt place, but not a shining city on a hill kind of place.

William Rivers Pitt wrote an article yesterday on why there is so much anger on the left. It is a response to Richard Cohen of the Washington Post who wrote an article lambasting Stephen Colbert's routine at the White House Correspondents dinner, and then another article complaining about all the angry email he got from the first article. Cohen doesn't like all the anger on the left, and Pitt responds to this.

Anger is not an emotion that one can live on for very long without damaging their own psyche. However, anger is very useful for short periods of time if it spurs you to action to correct a wrong. Jesus was certainly angry at times, for instance when people were using the temple as a place of business. Good thing those days are over.

In any case, Pitt explains it all so much better than I ever could. If you care to understand anger on the left, go read it here:

An excerpt:

Why the anger? It can be summed up in one run-on sentence: We have lost two towers in New York, a part of the Pentagon, an important American city called New Orleans, our economic solvency, our global reputation, our moral authority, our children's future, we have lost tens of thousands of American soldiers to death and grievous injury, we must endure the Abramoffs and the Cunninghams and the Libbys and the whores and the bribes and the utter corruption, we must contemplate the staggering depth of the hole we have been hurled down into, and we expect little to no help from the mainstream DC press, whose lazy go-along-to-get-along cocktail-circuit mentality allowed so much of this to happen because they failed comprehensively to do their job.

George W. Bush and his pals used September 11th against the American people, used perhaps the most horrific day in our collective history, deliberately and with intent, to foster a war of choice that has killed untold tens of thousands of human beings and basically bankrupted our country. They lied about the threat posed by Iraq. They destroyed the career of a CIA agent who was tasked to keep an eye on Iran's nuclear ambitions, and did so to exact petty political revenge against a critic. They tortured people, and spied on American civilians.

You cannot fathom anger arising from this?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The World Changed on 3/19

Four and a half years after 9/11, I often still hear the phrases: "Everything changed after 9/11", or "That’s a pre-9/11 mindset".

What this usually means is one or more of the following:

  • That we should be able to pre-emptively attack other countries if we are sufficiently afraid of them.
  • That torture should be an acceptable method of engagement with enemies
  • That it is OK to kidnap people in other countries and lock them up forever without the right to a trial.
  • That international treaties like the Geneva Convention are “quaint”, and we shouldn’t have to abide by them if it is inconvenient.
  • That we should ignore the illegalities of roving wiretaps and just trust George Bush to tell us what we need to know about them.
  • That the opinions of other civilized countries are irrelevant to how to behave in the world at large.

Regardless of which values our country is stomping on, the justification is always the same: “everything changed after 9/11”.

Well, for me, everything changed on 3/19. That is, March 19th, 2003, the day we attacked a foreign country that was not threatening us, and was not protecting terrorists who attacked us. A country that we had to kick international inspectors out of in order to start the invasion. A country that was not even *capable* of harming us, which was reflected in the best intelligence we had at the time, but was ignored.

Our elected representatives in Congress rolled over, our media uncritically beat the war drums, and the masses went along with the whole charade. The possibility that democracy could become mob action became an ugly reality. We let the administration scare us into launching an unnecessary, pre-emptive war. We attacked first. We were the aggressors. We lost any moral authority we might claim for a generation. Our democracy failed, precisely because it was all done with the consent of the people.

It was one thing to have an enemy attack us. It was tragic and shocking, but we had the resolve to deal with it. It is quite another to give in to fear and arrogance, to fail ourselves, to finally attack our own values. Al Qaeda is not eroding our values as a people nor changing our way of life. We are. We are voluntarily giving up our civil rights and our basic decency as a people, and that hurts us more in the end than being attacked by a bunch of crazy fundamentalists.

It isn’t 9/11 that did this to us. It is 3/19, and we did it to ourselves.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Jesus loves them

Wow. I mean, just, wow. This animation is *not* for the faint of heart. It starts out with George Bush's infamous quote about God telling him to invade Afganistan and Iraq, and then shows pictures of maimed and dead Iraqi children with "Jesus Loves Me" sung by a child over the top. I could only watch about half of it, because it is just too hard:

This is said to be made by a 15 year old girl, Ava Lowrey, from Alabama, from Amazing. This girl has more courage than all the Democrats in Congress combined.

I wonder if the Jesus Loves Me song is meant to convey that Jesus really does love the Iraqis who have been maimed and killed, or whether it is meant to be an indictment of George Bush thinking God wants him to use war as a political weapon and to use Jesus as cover. I suppose both work.