Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Well Armed in Defense of Freedom

Following the recent Supreme Court ruling on Chicago’s gun ban ordinance, some commentator pronounced that the Second Amendment was the first and most important guarantee of freedom.  What on earth was he thinking?  Where does the mindset come from that enshrines a gun toting citizenry as the first and most important guarantee of freedom?  Among other things, I’m a bit suspicious that too many of the would be gun toters are those whose blustery demeanor and desire to prove their willingness to defend their rights are, perhaps, not the most stable persons one would like to see parading well armed down Main Street.  I’ve offered that opinion to a few gun toting acquaintances, and their rabid defense, tinged with angry outrage, of their right to be armed darn near proves my point.
But I digress.  I wonder what that commentator, whoever he was, might think of the rest of our Constitution: our constitutional separation of powers, freedom of the press and religion, and commitment to civil rights.  What do they have to do with the freedom he so cherishes?  Or does he want his own ideal of freedom imposed on others, and is willing to do so backed up by the force of the weapon he carries?  
Force of arms has had a role in developing the civil freedoms we now take for granted, but in every case I can think of that force, whether threatened or applied, did not involve gangs of armed vigilantes.  Moreover, as was the case in our own war of independence and civil war, force of arms had no enduring value except as imputed to it by the unarmed power of the freedom of expression.
On the other hand, force of arms has also been the source of decades and centuries of persecution, destruction, oppression, and tyranny.  Sometimes, as in the case of our own Indian wars, it has been wielded by the state.  Sometimes, as in the case of the current rash of Chicago murders, it has been wielded by revenge seeking criminals.  It has been wielded far too often by angry relatives and friends against those closest to them.  
In the end, being armed is not, in itself, a defense of anything.  It’s just having the easy and conveniently at hand means to kill.  That’s all.  Nothing else.  The true defense of freedom is in ideas, the ability to express them, and the ebb and flow of unfettered public debate about them.
For what it’s worth, once upon a time I owned a few rifles, shotguns and handguns.  Moreover, I was authorized to and did carry a handgun as a civilian in public.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Arresting News About Customs

The latest news about the Virgin Atlantic flight stranded on the ground at Bradley International is that the pilot requested permission to off load the plane and Customs officials threatened to arrest any/all persons if that happened.  
I’ve been writing a little about boundaries and barriers, and it seems to me that the issue of hospitality is a part of that.  Friend Tom commented that the ancient Greeks considered hospitality the most sacred of duties.  Jesus was the very definition of hospitality in life.  Benedictines are instructed to welcome every visitor as if they might be the Christ.  We have a statue sitting out in a bay with a plaque that reads in part, “... Mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name, Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome...” 
I realize that we have laws about immigration and customs enforcement, but I ask you, in what way does “get off that plane and we’ll arrest you” help secure borders or display hospitality?  When can the so called barrier of our borders become a boundary of hospitality without jeopardizing security, real or imagined?  What kind of stupid is this?
By the way, I thought I might pop a note to the nice people at ICE saying much the same thing but note that they have a very corporate website.  Try to find an e-mail address on it, or a phone number for anything other than reporting suspicious persons without having to dig, and dig, and dig.  Not to worry.  I figure some Internet sifting software with pick this up and forward it as “potentially of interest.”

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Shell Oil, Websites and Popping Notes

Have you ever wanted to write a personal letter to a senior executive of a major corporation, perhaps with a comment or two about a product or service?  It isn’t all that easy.  With e-mail as our dominant way to write letters, try looking up an address connected with a name on the ‘contact us’ link on any major corporate website.   You won’t find much.  Sometimes one has to be diligent just to find the ‘contact us’ link.  
Oh well, what about an old fashioned postal letter?  All you need is a name, address and stamp.  That may not be all that easy either.  Corporate websites are full of everything but names of senior executives.  It’s not that they’re secret.  If you know how to do it you can ferret out everything you need, just not on their websites.  
In my previous post I mumbled on about boundaries and barriers.  These are barriers.  The information is not there because they do not want to hear from you, whether for good or ill, unless you have been authorized to enter through the gates and into the fortress.   That really gets under my skin, but I do have a certain grudging sympathy for them.  It’s a sympathy generated by the public comments section at the end of all Yahoo News articles.  There are some thoughtful comments, but the majority seem to be rude, contemptuous, ignorant and juvenile.  And those are the ones not screened out for crudeness of language by the censors.  Who would want to be inundated by thousands of e-mails from them?
What got me started on this was Shell Oil.  Not only have they publicly tut-tutted BP before congress, but they have begun airing television ads touting themselves as the good oil company.  That just flies in the face of their own performance in places such as western Africa.  So I thought I might pop a note to their CEO, or some other senior executive, suggesting a little more humility and a little less hubris.  I have no illusions about how much influence a retired Episcopal priest from Walla Walla might have, but the idea of just popping a note to a person whose name and address are easily available is out of the question.  
I do pop a note to Mr. Obama on occasion.  His name and address I have.  It’s on the White House website.  No doubt you have noticed how my well reasoned thoughts have influenced him.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Some Drivel About Boundaries and Barriers

Let’s talk about boundaries and barriers.  We all need boundaries and sometimes we need barriers.  Boundaries have clear demarkations, but they are permeable.  Barriers also have clear demarkations but they are impermeable, though not insurmountable.  
Boundaries help define who we are, and who we are not, as individuals and as groups both formal and informal.  Barriers do much the same but because they are defensive in nature they tend to define the other as unacceptable, perhaps even as enemy.  Boundaries, on the other hand, being permeable, tend to invite the other to come in, explore, and possibly decide become a friend or member.  In suburban terms, a barrier is a gated community with a manned guard post.  A boundary is a low picket fence with an unlocked gate and welcome sign.  One says stay out.  The other says come in, but know that when you do you are in a particular place of particular ways.
Both boundaries and barriers have much to say about what is and what is not appropriate behavior in various circumstances, but boundaries, being flexible, are able to make adjustments as needed.  Barriers, being inflexible, tend to inspire unreflective judgment and punitive responses.
The words of Jesus established boundaries.  So do the words of Paul in Romans and Galatians as he struggles to clarify the difference between the freedom that is ours within the boundaries of faith in Christ Jesus and the lack of freedom that is also ours if we choose to live behind the barrier of the ancient law.  That law was not without its purpose.  The ancient Israelites were a fragile assembly of tribes surrounded by enemies intent on their destruction or enslavement.  The law formed one part of an essential defensive barrier behind which they might become both a nation and a people of God.  As barriers go it was just barely good enough to make room for that to happen.  Sometimes we also need barriers, physical and psychological, for our own survival.   Barriers can serve legitimate purposes, but Christians are more about boundaries.
As Christians, we are to be a people of boundaries, not barriers.  The problem is that people like barriers too much because they give us a sense of security in uncertain times.  Castles, moats and forts, we like and want them all.  They separate the saved from the unsaved, the believer from the unbeliever, the clean from the unclean.  We want to welcome the stranger only if the stranger will undergo conversion to be just like us.  We are in favor of spiritual revival so long as it revives those who need it to become just like us.  To make sure our standards are maintained, we erect barriers, lots of barriers, and there is no better place to look some really good ones than in the ancient laws of Torah.  We don’t have to take them all, just the ones that suit our needs as effective barriers.  Our best justification is to boldly state that without these barriers we would have no boundaries at all and anything goes.  That doesn’t even make sense, but it sounds good. 
The question is, how can we become less a people of barriers and more a people of boundaries?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Enemies in God's Household

In the midst of psalms seeking God’s protection from, or revenge upon, enemies stands Psalm 87 celebrating God’s song of joy as he records the peoples of the earth, including  major enemy nations and sometime allies, unbelievers everyone, as having been born in Jerusalem.
What do you suppose inspired the poet to write these words of praise for God’s welcoming embrace even of Israel’s most feared enemies?  Footnotes in one of my bibles are sure that only individual converts are included in the welcome, but that requires the words of the psalm to be stretched beyond their limits. 
In my imagination I see the writer rushing his new offering to the chief temple musician, all excited that he has gained a new insight into what might be included in the fullness of God’s abounding and steadfast love for the whole of his creation.  And I imagine the chief musician saying, “What, are you crazy?  What gives you the idea that the Taliban, Iranis, Illegal Mexicans and Hugo whathisname could possibly be included in God’s household, much less honorary citizens of our beloved capital city?  Get outta here and take that drivel with you!”
What really amazes me is that it survived to be included in the canon of psalms.
Psa. 87:0  
  On the holy mount stands the city he founded; 
  the LORD loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob. 
  Glorious things are spoken of you,
O city of God.
  Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia—
“This one was born there,” they say.
  And of Zion it shall be said,
“This one and that one were born in it”;
for the Most High himself will establish it. 
  The LORD records, as he registers the peoples,
“This one was born there.”
  Singers and dancers alike say,
“All my springs are in you.”
  

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What Was Elijah's Problem?

What was Elijah’s problem?  How many times did God have to rescue him, or use him to pull off some amazing event, for Elijah to get it through his head that, with God as his special companion, he did not have to be afraid of Jezebel or anyone else?  What is with this running away to hide in a cave?
I think it has to do with how hard it is to confront the mind bending insanity of a chaotic world.  Faith can sustain one for a time, but there come’s a point when, in the face of a tangle town of political, moral and social manipulation, it’s hard to navigate a reasonable course, even in companionship with God, or, for that matter, to be confident of God’s presence at all.
Getting away to a quiet place, a place of refuge, a place where it is possible to think, pray and commune with God is essential to maintaining one’s sanity in the face of the craziness that characterizes so much of what passes as civilization.  Oddly enough, I think that there was something comforting in the earthquake, blazing fire, roaring wind, thundering storm, and the silence in which the still small voice could be heard.  There was a sense of order in each of them.  They made sense.  Besides that, they existed for a season. They came and they went, and when they were gone, they were gone.  In that time and space it was possible to make some sense out of his relationship with God and gain enough understanding about the work God had given him to go out and do it.  
Elijah could not stay there.  He had to reenter the cynical, manipulative insanity of the world of Ahab, Jezebel and all the other characters in the drama that surrounded them. That had not changed, but Elijah was ready to have at it again.  
We also live in an Ahab and Jezebel world.
A few weeks ago I read Michael Lewis’ new book The Big Short in which he chronicled the rise and fall of the subprime mortgage fiasco, and the fortunes of a half dozen persons who saw it coming and made billions betting on it.  It’s a story of arrogance, stupidity, avaricious greed, utter disregard for the common good, incompetence and ignorance all working at cross purposes that could only result in mutual self-destruction.  It may be that Wall Street types played the role of Ahab and Jezebel, but the rest of us were not innocent bystanders.  We egged them on, endorsed their work, bought their products and trusted them with our money.  We, collectively, played the part of Naboth’s neighbors who were so easily persuaded to betray an honest man.  I don’t think Lewis’ book was so much an indictment of Wall Street as it was an indictment of the banal greed of all the Main Streets one finds in a Sinclair Lewis novel. 
A similar theme was followed with my next read, a highly recommended novel by Daniel Greenberg: Tech Transfer: Science, Money, Love and the Ivory Tower.  I don’t recall who highly recommended it, but they have very low standards.  It was advertised as a witty, yet informed, novel probing the incestuous relationships between university research and big business.  It turned out to be populated entirely by characters of no discernible integrity whose lives overflowed with duplicity and fraud.  In Greenberg’s world there is no honesty, only degrees of coverup so that those who can best disguise themselves have the best chance of winning whatever it is they are out to win.  It’s only a novel, of course, but one written by a science journalist whose non-fiction works appear to follow the same path.  
Both books displayed a disordered contemporary world in which ignorance, self-serving manipulation, disregard for the well being of the community, political opportunism, and enthusiastic falsification of truth are the normal patterns of life for great and small alike.  It is Noah’s world, Elijah’s world, Luther’s world and our world.  Just look around:  Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, North Korea, Arizona, South Carolina, British Petroleum, McNeil Labs, Tea Parties, political advertising and media consultants, pharmaceutical advertising, and that’s just this week’s news.  Included on that list is every you and me who sneeringly point at ‘them’ and ‘they.’  We, you and I, are the ones about whom Paul wrote when he said: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”
It isn’t that our world is fallen or dark.  It is that our world is sinfully chaotic driven by hundreds of millions of selfish decisions, including our own.  No wonder Calvin went for a theocratic dictatorship or that Plato favored the absolute rule of a philosopher king.  Both were terrible ideas, but they do show how the nuttiness of Marxism could be so attractive at first glance.  They attempted to impose order on chaos.  They failed for good reason.  Whatever God is up to, it does not include the imposition of order on society by the self appointed, whether by good or evil intent, nor has God made any appointments himself.
Elijah, indeed scripture through and through, offers another way.  It is the way of boldly entering the world as it is carrying the light of God’s presence to be shined in all places regardless of power or position.  We who have taken the name of Christ are called on to learn from Elijah but not follow him.  We are to follow Jesus Christ carrying with us a new kind of light: a light of healing, reconciliation, and godly justice.  Like Elijah, we may sometimes feel overwhelmed by chaos and even lose our way, and like Elijah, we will have to seek refuge in communion with God to regain strength, energy and sense of purpose.  In the end, it seems to me that we are not intended to live an orderly life of predictable equilibrium.  We are intended, by God, to live in communities of communities in an improvised and ever changing perichoresis.  We do not live that way now, but we Christians can approximate what that might look like in our own daily lives among those with whom we live, work and play.  We Christian can, and sometimes we do.  Just not often enough.  

Monday, June 7, 2010

Elijah the Wizard

I love the Elijah stories.  Part prophet, part wizard, I’m certain that Rowling got her model for Dumbledore from him.  For that matter, I wonder if Jezebel, Ahab and Ahaziah might be the source of the evil Malfoy family.  
Charles Taylor has argued that we have lost our sense of enchantment, or maybe it’s better put that we have lost our ability to perceive an enchanted world.  We no longer live in a world populated by “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night.”  We have purified the air of the “cosmic powers of this present darkness,” and the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  In so doing we have also emasculated and spayed the spiritual presences and forces that have been embedded in the human story for almost ever. 
Actually I may have to take that back.  All of them live on, just not within the context of liberal theology.  Fundamentalists and friends are filled up to here with the reality of the devil and his minions.  A few of my fundamentalist acquaintances give the devil so much credit for present evils, and all things they don’t like, that they are able to avoid all responsibility for the ills of this world, including those in their own lives.  Various New Age followers wax poetic over the beneficent spiritual presence they find in all things, everywhere, all the time.  Slightly more anchored persons opt for a Celtic Spirituality that few Celts would recognize but that encompasses both benevolent and malevolent spirits in moderate proportions that never get too far out of line.  The rest of us are entertained not only by Harry Potter but also by all the super heroes that inhabit movie land.  
The fundamentalist’s devil absolves humanity from responsibility.  New Age thinking tames the spiritual world, confining it to a mildly exciting but not threatening existence. Super heroes separate the world of enchantment from reality altogether and make it a form of fictional entertainment.   
Elijah takes the world of spiritual enchantment and plunks it down squarely in the serious business of understanding God’s engagement with humanity and God’s use of humans as agents of his power and presence.  Even though intimately involved with God and serving as conduits for God’s power, Elijah, in particular, does not live in a world he can control.  Unpredictable discontinuities haunt his life with real threats, famine, thirst, and anxieties great enough to challenge his faith.  They are all a part of his existence.  Enchantment, it seems, is not magic, and it is especially not magic that can solve the problem of how to maintain a favorable equilibrium in one’s life. 
Perhaps we need to discover a new way of understanding the spiritual enchantment of creation, a way that would allow us to seriously engage with in the context of our scientific age just as Elijah did in the context of his age.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Electing A Sheriff

This is an opinion piece about local politics in our county, but perhaps you will find it interesting anyway.

As settlers moved west and towns began to grow, they had to decide how best to live together in community.  It seemed like a good idea to elect willing persons to various offices that needed to be filled with the hope that they might do a decent job of it, at least for a while.  That’s the American way.  It’s the way that was enshrined in the State Constitution and succeeding statutes providing for the form of county government that shall be.  It’s a way that worked out well as long as the social, economic and legal environments of our communities were relatively uncomplicated.  Nothing is uncomplicated anymore and hasn’t been for decades.  But we still hold open elections for offices that require highly skilled and specialized professional leadership.  Maybe it’s time to reconsider some of them.  A case in point is our upcoming election for County Sheriff.
There are two highly visible candidates running for the open office of sheriff in our county, Mr. Turner and Mr. White.  I guess there are other candidates but none with the same visibility as they.  Mr. Turner emphasizes his local roots although he has spent most of his life in Los Angeles as an LAPD officer, and then attorney, before returning to our area to become a wine maker.  Mr. White has been a local deputy for over twenty years rising to the rank of captain.  Mr. Turner is endorsed by a wide range of community leaders, some county officials, and a number of local police.  Mr. White is endorsed by a wide range of community leaders, many current and retired deputies, and a number of local police.  Mr. Turner says he is for God, country and family values.  Mr. White advertises his life long membership in the Presbyterian Church where he has been an active lay leader.  
Other than the single fact that both are trained and experienced law enforcement officers, what does any of the rest of it have to do with whether either would make a good chief of a complex, countywide law enforcement agency?  If you were on a search committee to find the right person to lead a legally and technically complicated organization, are these the most important criteria you would examine to find her or him?  They shouldn’t be.  But they are what voters who have not a clue what might make a good sheriff will use to make their decision, if they use any verifiable criteria at all.
Most will vote according to which name they think sounds better, or whether they like or dislike the person who owns the house on whose lawn a campaign sign appears.  
The point is that it’s time to abandon elections for certain offices that require highly trained, specialized and professional leadership.  In our case it is the County Board of Commissioners who should have the responsibility for hiring the best professional they can recruit to do a job that has been well defined according to the present and anticipated needs of the department.  
Making changes such as these would require the adoption of a county home rule charter, and oh my lord what a storm of controversy that would unleash.  There are only six home rule counties in the State, which I find ironic.  Conservative individualism is the credo of local politics around here, so one would think that home rule would be just the ticket to get local county government out from under the thumb of Olympia.  Not a chance.  The prevailing attitude of “We got what we got and we’re going to keep it that way” is an obstacle of enormous size and weight.
So who do you want?  Turner or White?  Flip a coin.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Thoughts in the Rain

Rain.  It’s been raining for days.  According to one forecast it’s supposed to rain for more days yet.  What’s wrong with this picture?  We live on the dry side of the mountains.  Seattle gets rain. We get dry.  It is true that we depend on winter snows for our water, and this winter was not a good one for that.  The snows came late and melted too quickly.  The local paper threatened water rationing.  Farmers and ranchers were likely not to have access to all the water for which they have paper rights.  
Now it’s been raining steady for days.  I wonder what that will do for the water supply?  I wonder which farmers will be overjoyed and which ones will be sure their crops are ruined?  I wonder who will blame God for having lost his sense of timing?  I wonder who will blame it on global warming, and who will blame it on Obama?  I wonder if the people on the Gulf Coast will know or care about a very rural intermountain region whining about too little or too much precipitation?
Let’s see if I’ve got this right.  The Gulf is filling up with oil and there is no immediate prospect of stopping it. The damage to life in all forms may be incalculable.  BP may cease to exist and with it a huge percentage of dividend revenue going toward pensions in Britain.   The European debt crisis may drag down the nascent economic recovery.  The Israelis are using lethal force in international waters to defend themselves against boats loaded with unarmed Gaza relief activists.  China can’t keep its school students safe much less control North Korea.  Japan can’t keep a leader longer than eight months and is catching up with France or Italy in the race for most PMs in the shortest amount of time.  Thailand can only fake democracy.  Chavez is leading Venezuela into a worker paradise as prosperous as Cuba’s.  Mexico is in an internal state of war with drug lords who have become rich off of American drug users, but we get some of the money back by selling them guns.   Jamaica wants to be like Mexico.   The people running Wall Street are no smarter or honest than they have ever been.  And, oh yeah, it’s raining too much here.  
Gee I wish I was president and could fix all these things.