Friday, December 31, 2010

2009-2010: Has President Obama Really Been That Bad?

Another year has passed, and if we are to believe some media outlets, the US economy is going to hell in a hand basket and President Obama is the root of most of our problems. The data, however, don't support such a conclusion. Take, for instance, the chart below, which maps the DJIA (i.e., the Dow Jones Industrial Average) since President Obama has taken office:

I don't think it takes a statistician to see that the trend is decidedly upward. In point of fact, since January of 2009, the DJIA has climbed 39.8%, and since January of 2010, it has climbed 11.02% (If you're wondering, the NASDAQ Composite Index was up 17% and the Standard and Poors 500 Index was up 13%). Moreover, in inflation-adjusted terms, the U.S economy is now back to where it stood at its peak prior to the 2008-2009 recession (see the following article, "Real GDP now at pre-recession levels"), and far fewer people are applying for unemployment benefits as the year ends (see the following article: "Unemployment benefit applications drop sharply") and more firms are saying they plan to hire full-time, permanent workers in 2011 (see the following article, "More firms say they’ll hire in 2011"), raising hopes for a healthier job market in 2011.

To be sure, this is not to suggest that everything is hunky-dorrie (technical term that we sociologists use). Unemployment is still at extremely high levels (approximately 9.7%), and if we take into account those folks who have simply stopped looking for jobs, it is even higher.  That said, let's not even pretend that things are worse than they were two years ago -- they aren't.  That doesn't necessarily mean that President Obama should receive credit for the economy's improvement (as I pointed out in an earlier post, the economy is the one area over which Presidents exercise the least influence), but he certainly shouldn't be blamed for its current state. The data simply don't support such a view.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The 12 Days of Christmas

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the 12 Days of Christmas are not the 12 days before Christmas but rather the 12 days after Christmas. The twelve day period is also known as Christmastide and runs from December 25th until January 5th (although in some traditions it runs from December 26 and conclude January 6th), culminating with the Feast of Epiphany, which commemorates the time when the Wise Men present gifts to the young Jesus, who may have been as old as two years old at the time. For some, gifts are given on all of the 12 days (e.g., as in our household), but this is more the exception than the rule.  When most people hear "The 12 Days of Christmas," however, they probably think of the song, which goes as follows:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... "A Partridge in a Pear Tree."

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... "Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree."

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Four Colly Birds (some versions using "mockingbirds" or "calling birds"), Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree . . . (and so on until the 12th verse):

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Twelve Drummers Drumming, Eleven Pipers Piping, Ten Lords-a-Leaping, Nine Ladies Dancing, Eight Maids-a-Milking, Seven Swans-a-Swimming, Six Geese-a-Laying, Five Gold Rings, Four Colly Birds, Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

The song's origin is unclear, but one story that has little historical support but is still a lot of fun to consider is that the song its origins as a Roman Catholic "Catechism Song" in England during a time when Roman Catholicism was "discouraged" (1558-1829). According to this tradition
  • The "true love" in the song refers to God, while the "me" refers to those who receive the gifts mentioned in the song from God
  • The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to Jesus Christ whose death on a tree (i.e., the cross) was a gift from God
  • The "two turtle doves" refer to the Old and New Testaments - another gift from God
  • The "three French hens" refer to "faith," "hope" and "love" three gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13). 
  • The "four calling birds" refer to the four Gospels, which sing "the song of salvation through Jesus Christ." 
  • The "five golden rings" refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah. 
  • The "six geese a-laying" refer to the six days of creation. 
  • The "seven swans a swimming" refer to the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:8-11) 
  • The "eight maids a milking" refer to the eight beatitudes. 
  • The "nine ladies dancing" refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) 
  • The "ten lords a-leaping" refer to the Ten Commandments. 
  • The "eleven pipers piping" refer to the eleven faithful disciples. 
  • The "twelve drummers drumming" refer to the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed.
For a more scholarly (but less entertaining) take on the song's origins see the Wikipedia article.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why Following the Golden Rule Isn't Always a Good Idea

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed we could derive a supreme principle of morality solely through the use of human reason. He offered several versions of this principle, which he called the categorical imperative, all of which he believed amounted to the same thing. One version argued that we should only act "according to the maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."

Now you might have noticed that Kant's maxim sounds a whole lot like what is generally referred to as the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), variations of which show up in a number of different religious traditions:

"Hurt not others that you yourself would find hurtful" (The Tibetan Dhammapada).
"So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Jesus, Matthew 7:12).
"Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself" (Confucius, Analects)
"One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires" (Brihaspati, Mahabharata).
"Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you" (Muhammad, The Farewell Sermon).
"That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
Despite the similarities of the golden rule with Kant's categorical imperative, there is a slight (and very important) difference between the two.  Kant (correctly) recognized that the golden rule doesn't take into account our personal preferences. Because of this, as Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein point out in their book, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes (p. 84), there are some problems with the rule.

This problem is illustrated by English playwright  George Benard Shaw rewriting of the rule: "Do not do unto others as you would have others do unto you; they may have different tastes." Or as Cathcart and Klein like to say, "A sadist is a masochist who follows the golden rule."
In inflicting pain on others the masochist is only doing what the golden rule requires: doing what he would like done unto him, preferably with a whip. But Kant would say that there's no way that a masochist could honestly claim that the moral imperative, "inflict pain on others,"could be a universal law for a livable world. Even a masochist would find that unreasonable.
Put differently, Kant's universalizing test is a way of checking to see if the action we are about to undertake puts our interests ahead of everyone else's.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fans or Fanatics?

Our neighbor across the street is from L.A., and as best as I can tell, he is a die hard Dodgers and Lakers fan (he may still be a Rams fan even though they high-tailed it to St. Louis a few years back).  No doubt, like me, he feels exhilarated when one of his teams wins a game or a championship (as the Lakers did last season) and a bit depressed when one of them falls flat on their face, so to speak (as the Dodgers did this past Fall).

We occasionally kid each other about the loyalty we feel for our respective teams.  He "threatened" to hang a Lakers banner after they beat the Celtics in the NBA Championship, and I joked that if he did, I'd shoot it down (he doesn't know that I got him one for Christmas). When his new baby girl was born, I told him I planned to get her a Giants hat, and when I hung a Giants World Series Champion banner outside our front door, he shook his head in disgust. He also thanked me when we took it down to make room for our Christmas decorations.

This is what I think of when I consider what it means to be a sports fan. Happy when our teams win, sad when they lose, and a willingness to engage in friendly banter with those who support other teams. But then I hear about what happened before the recent USC-UCLA football game: Dozens of fans brawled, two men stabbed, three men arrested and two police officers hurt, and I recall that that the word "fan" is a shortened version of the word "fanatic."
fan. 1889, Amer. Eng., originally of baseball enthusiasts, probably a shortening of fanatic, but may be influenced by the Fancy (1807), a collective term for followers of a certain hobby or sport (especially boxing). There is an isolated use from 1682, but the modern word is likely a new formation (Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved December 05, 2010, from website:
Sporting events, whether at the professional or recreational level, should bring us together, not tear us apart. And they often do (bring us together, that is). The degree of racial integration at NFL games on Sunday afternoons is higher than you'll find in most churches on Sunday mornings (I think it was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who remarked that Sunday morning is the most racially segregated hour in Christian America), and I would like to believe that no game is so important that people would feel the need to bring a knife to it, but clearly I'm wrong. 

How sad. How very sad.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Isaiah, MLK and the Dream of a Better World

In a previous post ("Advent and the Rapture") I argued that Christians should approach the season of Advent as calling us to live in the present as if God's future has already arrived. Today's lectionary passage from Isaiah (35:1-10) presents us with a vision of a world worth striving for (from the New International Version):

1 The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.

3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and those the LORD has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Will we always be able to live up to this vision? Of course not, but that doesn't mean that collectively we shouldn't try because every once in a while we catch a glimpse of God's Kingdom. Indeed, Coretta Scott King, when asked to reflect on the "March on Washington," which culminated with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech," reportedly remarked: "It was as if the Kingdom of God had arrived, if just for a moment."


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tax Cuts or Targeted Spending?

The debate over whether the Bush-era tax cuts should be extended (see e.g., "Tax Deal Suggests New Path for Obama") has highlighted two ways that Federal and State governments can spend or infuse money into the economy.  One approach is to fund government programs (e.g., unemployment benefits, Social Security, Medicare, etc.) that target specific groups of individuals (e.g., the unemployed, the retired, the elderly).  The other is by cutting taxes, which puts more money into the hands of individuals who then can spend these extra dollars as they see fit.  I am well aware that cutting taxes is not technically a form of government spending, but in the aggregate, it matters little whether the government spends $800 million through government programs or collects $800 million less in revenues because of tax cuts. In both cases the government has $800 million less in is coffers (and its debt has increased by $800 million), while the market has $800 million more.

Needless to say, economic conservatives (e.g., libertarians), who tend to trust the efficiency of the market over the collective wisdom of the government, generally prefer cutting taxes, while economic liberals (e.g., Rawlsian egalitarians), who often concede that the market is highly efficient but are doubtful about its fairness, typically prefer targeted spending through government programs.

Since the market is almost always more efficient when it comes to allocating dollars to where they are needed most, I believe that tax cuts are generally the way to go if we are looking for ways to stimulate the economy.  However, while the market is very efficient, it can be brutally so, often leaving in its wake a trail of destruction and broken lives.  Thus, while tax cuts should probably be the primary method by which the government stimulates the economy, there will always need to be some government funding of programs that addresses the needs of those that the market, at least in the short term, leaves behind or in the lurch (e.g., those of us who are currently unemployed, those of us who, because of circumstances beyond our control, have no choice but to work in low-paying jobs, and so on). The trick, of course, is finding the right balance.

Nothing so far in this discussion has addressed the morality of whether the Bush-era tax cuts should be extended to the 2% of Americans earning over $200,000 (individuals) or $250,000 (couples), or whether President Obama's initial plan to extend the tax cuts to the other 98% of Americans was sufficient.  In a time when so many Americans are out of work and the Federal deficit is running so high, I don't see why the upper 2% of Americans can't sacrifice a bit of their wealth for the benefit of those who haven't been as blessed, at least in monetary terms, as they have been. It 'tis the season, after all. Evidently, I'm in the minority on this one, though.

(As an aside, I don't see how at this point President Obama has much of choice but to compromise with Republicans on the tax cuts.  If the Democrats who are currently criticizing the President for caving in to Republican demands really cared as much as their current posturing suggests, then they should have been a bit more proactive and done something about it prior to the mid-term elections.  To criticize the President at this point and time strikes me as little more than self-serving. To be sure, some Democrats in the House and Senate did try to do something about this prior to the elections, but collectively they didn't try too hard.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Happiness, Deviance and Athletic Success

A recent study by sociologist Eric M. Carter of Georgetown University has found that athletic success doesn't automatically translate into happiness.  Based on interviews with over 100 current and former NFL players, Carter found that elite athletes report high levels of unhappiness and deviant behavior (e.g., drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence).  He did find, however, that what does have a positive effect (if, like me, you consider happiness and lower levels of deviant behavior good things) is faith in God and access to a religious support system.

For a brief but excellent review of the book/study, see David Briggs's "Ahead of the Trend: In God NFL players Can Trust: Teams, Public Pave Path to Deviance."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Love is Not All We Need

Love is in the air. From the Beatles to Albus Dumbledore, Thomas Aquinas to Karl Barth, evangelical Christians to mainline Christians, the consensus seems to be that love is all we need. Indeed, a recent study by Paul Froese and Chris Bader, America's Four Gods, found that 85% of Americans believe that the term "loving" describes God well (p. 15).

The trouble is, I don't think we all mean the same thing when we use the term.  Lay theologian C.S. Lewis (and the Greeks before him) once identified four different uses of the term love: affection (i.e., fondness), friendship (i.e., strong bond), eros (i.e., being in love), and charity (i.e., the love that calls on us to care for others regardless of the circumstances).  To this list, I would be tempted to add a couple more. For example, my sense is that when a lot of people hear the word, they think of Dr. Phil, Oprah, Psychology Today and "warm fuzzes." However, while I'm certain that Jesus offered comfort to the afflicted, if Jesus had only made people feel good, he never would have been nailed to a cross by the Romans for sedition. Then, of course, some of us see God's love in terms of parental love, but even here, how we view God is split between those of us who see him as a firm parent and those of us who see him (or her) as an indulgent one. As Froese and Bader note,
Some parents stress self-discipline, responsibility, and self-reliance in order to help their children become independent and happy individuals... They believe that the goodness of a child is enhanced by tenaciously reprimanding any behavior that strays from the right path. Other parents stress fairness and equality and seek to guide children without reprimands but rather through enticements. For these parents, punishment instills the wrong message and, in fact, tends to squelch the freedom and independence of a child (p. 16).
To illustrate this latter divide, consider the debate over the place of gay and lesbians in the Church. Both conservative and liberal Christians agree that the Church should love gays and lesbians. However, while for the former this generally means tough love, for the latter it tends to mean being nonjudgmental. That is, theological conservatives are more likely to believe that the proper response of the Church is to love the sinner but not the sin and promote the Gospel's power to help gays and lesbians to either transcend or transform their sexual desires (i.e., either not act on their impulses or become straight). By contrast, theological liberals are more likely to accept gays and lesbians as they are (i.e., not requiring them to repent of their sinfulness because they don't consider them to be sinful), and to welcome them as full and faithful members of the Church.

Jesus and Love in the Gospels

This emphasis on the centrality of love among mainline Christians is puzzling since it is likely that Jesus hardly ever used the term. The word love seldom appears on Jesus' lips except in the Gospel of John, which (unless one takes a noncritical approach to the Bible) tells us little about the historical Jesus. As New Testament scholar John Meier notes in the fourth volume of his examination of the historical Jesus,
Most believers take for granted that what lies at the heart of Jesus' message and what is repeated incessantly throughout his preaching is love, both love of neighbor and love of enemies. This is the received "gospel" generations who have grown up believing that all you need is love. However, if we restrict ourselves for the moment to the Synoptic Gospels, one would not get such an impression from the saying of Jesus. "Love" as a verb or noun occurs relatively rarely on the lips of Jesus. When it does occur, Jesus is often citing a text from the Jewish Scriptures or commenting on it (A Marginal Jew: Law and Love, pp. 480-481).
In fact, Meier only traces two sayings back to the historical Jesus: (1) the double command to love God and one's neighbors and (2) the command to love one's enemies. He concludes his analysis by claiming that we cannot understand Jesus' use of the word love apart from his understanding of Torah, and that we shouldn't place "love" at the center of Jesus' theology:
Once we move on to claiming that Jesus made love the hermeneutical key for interpreting the whole Law or the supreme principle from which all other commandments can be deduced or by which they can be judged, we have shifted from the historical Jesus to the Matthean Jesus--the original sin of most Christian exegetes expounding on the historical Jesus and the Law... All you need is love? Hardly. For Jesus, you need the Torah as a whole. Nothing could be more foreign to this Palestinian Jew than a facile antithesis between Law and love. But love, as commanded by the Law, comes first--and second" (p. 576). 
Love and Christian Theology

What then does this imply for contemporary theological reflection and proclamation? Well, it certainly doesn't mean that Christians have to abandon notions of love. However, when we do use it (unless we are going to assume that our congregants are familiar with both the Oral and Written Torah), we need to embed it within the story of Jesus' life, death, teachings and Resurrection. We need to place it within a distinctly Christian context because what love meant for Jesus and what it means for Christians differs from what it means in more secular settings. That doesn't mean there isn't some overlap between these different "worlds," but they aren't identical, and given the variety of ways in which the word is used and interpreted, Christians need to be careful how they use it.

That said, we also need to avoid the temptation of treating love as the central Christian theological concept. As we've already seen, to do so isn't supported by the textual evidence. Moreover, there are other concepts that are central to the Christian faith (e.g., hope, forgiveness, redemption, sin) that stand on their own, so to speak, and should not be seen as being derived from love. 

Thus, with all due respect to John Lennon, while it is true that we do need love, love is not all we need.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Is Christian Civility Possible in an Uncivil World?

Evangelical Richard Mouw, the President of Fuller Seminary, the largest theological school in the world, recently released a new edition of his book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. I haven't picked up a copy, but a recent interview of Mouw by Krista Tippett on her show, "On Being" (it used to be called "Speaking of Faith"), highlighted some of the issues he touches on in his book.

One notion that Mouw picks up on is the historian Martin Marty's idea of "convicted civility." Marty once argued that there seems to be a lot of folks with plenty of conviction but with little or no civility, and a lot of folks with plenty of civility but with little or no conviction, but what we don't have (and really need) are people who have plenty of conviction and plenty of civility. In other words, we need people who are serious about what they believe in but are able to live "civilly" with those with whom they disagree on fundamental issues (it is relatively easy to be civil to those with whom we don't have fundamental differences).  As Tippett notes in her journal about her conversation with Mouw:
"Richard Mouw lays out the imperative to all kinds of Christians for gentleness, reverence, humanity, and "honor" of the different other at the heart of the Bible and the life of Jesus. But this is not a feel-good plea for harmony. Even as he calls for civility and gentleness, Mouw reasserts his public and private opposition to gay marriage and civil unions. The civility he calls for would not minimize difference, at least at the outset, but would create a different space for discussing and navigating it — indeed for bringing differences into public life with virtue and vitality of expression. Picking up on a phrase coined by Christian historian Martin Marty, Richard Mouw builds upon this idea of 'convicted civility.'"
Convicted civility is, of course, easier to talk about than do, but Mouw believes that the way we treat people is a greater measure of Christian virtue than the positions we take.  One thing he stresses is the importance of honoring the other rather than merely tolerating them, which is why he has problems with those who stress the need for tolerance.

On this matter Mouw is on to something.  Barring the second coming of Jesus, if we are going to live in a civilized world, all (or at least most) of us will need to learn how to live with difference, to welcome the "stranger" in our midst, to deal civilly with people with whom we have fundamental disagreements (e.g., on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, war, etc.).  We won't be able to bring everyone around to our way of thinking (which, of course, is always the right way to think about such issues). Instead, we will need to honor them for who they are: children of God.  Perhaps, to pick up on a theme I touched on in a post from earlier this week, "Advent and the Rapture," this is an opportunity for us to live in the present as if God's future has already arrived.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Should US Airports Use Racial and Religious Profiling?

Another fascinating debate is available for viewing and/or listening at Intelligence Squared US (it is also available through iTunes), which is affiliated with Intelligence Squared, a UK based organisation that stages debates around the world.  As I've noted in previous posts, the debates are held in the traditional Oxford Style, with as many as 2,500 people attending some events. Typically, those attending vote prior to and after a debate, and the winning debate team is decided by which way the vote swings. So, for instance, if prior to the debate the audience favors the propositions by 55% but after only 51% favor it, then the opposing team is considered to have won the debate.

The most recent debate debated the motion: US Airports Should Use Racial and Religious Profiling.  Those arguing on behalf of the motion are Robert Baer,  Deroy Murdock and Asra Normani. Those arguing against it are Hassan Abbas, Debra Burlingame and Michael Chertoff.  Their biographies (from the Intelligence Squared US website) are printed below:

Those Arguing For the Motion:

Robert Baer was a CIA case officer in the Directorate of Operations from 1976 to 1997, where he served in Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq and Lebanon. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers: Sleeping with the Devil, about the Saudi royal family and its relationship with the United States; and See No Evil. He served as the inspiration for the George Clooney character in the movie Syriana.

Deroy Murdock is a libertarian and a syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. His column, “This Opinion Just In…” reaches approximately 400 newspapers across America each week.

Asra Q. Nomani, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal for 15 years, is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace.

Those Arguing Against the Motion:

Hassan Abbas is Quaid-i-Azam Professor at SIPA, Columbia University. He is also a senior advisor at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and Bernard Schwartz Fellow at Asia Society in New York. Abbas has also been a visiting fellow at the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School and a visiting scholar at the Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation. Prior to his academic career, Abbas served as a government official in the administrations of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf. While in the Police Service of Pakistan in the late 1990s, he served in the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pukhtunkhwa).

Debra Burlingame is the sister of Charles F. "Chic" Burlingame, III, pilot of American Airlines flight 77 which was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. She is the co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America and a co-founder, along with Liz Cheney and William Kristol, of Keep America Safe. She has testified before Congress on aviation security, and has written for the Wall Street Journal and other national publications on national security issues. She is a board member on the National September 11 Memorial and Museum Foundation.

Michael Chertoff served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009 for the Bush Administration. Before heading up the Department of Homeland Security, he served as a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and as a federal prosecutor for more than a decade.

Just to recap, this debate is available at Intelligence Squared US and through iTunes.  A transcript of the debate is also available at the website,

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent and the Rapture

According to the 2005 Baylor Survey found that approximately 50% of Americans believe in the Rapture, which holds that Christians will be gathered together in the air to meet Christ either at his return or seven years prior to his return.  There is even a Rapture Index that tracks world events and is
"designed to measure the type of activity that could act as a precursor to the rapture. You could say the Rapture index is a Dow Jones Industrial Average of end time activity, but... it would be better if you viewed it as prophetic speedometer. The higher the number, the faster we're moving towards the occurrence of pre-tribulation rapture."
Not everyone who believes in Jesus' second coming believes in the Rapture, however.  For example, the 2006 Religion and Public Life Survey found that 79% of Americans believe that Jesus will come again someday, but only 25% believe that this will happen in their lifetime. The age group this is most likely to believe that Jesus will come again in their lifetime are Americans between the age of 35-44 (31%). The least likely group are those 65 and over (22%).

Such things came to mind this morning during worship as I listened to this year's Lectionary readings for the First Sunday of Advent, in particular the passage from the Gospel of Matthew (24:36-44):
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son,[a] but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.  Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left."
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him" (New International Version).
What are those of us Christians who don't believe that Jesus will come in our lifetimes (a majority of Americans) or not at all (a small minority) to do with passages such as this? What are we to do, for the matter, with the season of Advent, which traditionally calls on Christians to prepare for Jesus' Second Coming?

I don't know if there is an easy answer to that question, but I think that this morning's passage from Isaiah (2:1-5) provides a clue:
This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. 
Many peoples will come and say,
         “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob.
              He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
         The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
              He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.
         They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
              Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD (New International Version)
Isaiah, I believe, is not only holding out a hope for a better future, he's also calling on his listeners (i.e., the descendants of Jacob), to live that future now (i.e., to walk in the light of the LORD) and not wait until God brings such a world about.  

I am almost certain that Isaiah's vision of the future informed Jesus' notion of the Kingdom of God and would argue that Jesus' vision of how the world should be (and not how it is) should inform how those of us who are Christians should live our lives today. And that, I believe, is how we can approach the season of Advent -- recognizing that the Kingdom of God, God's hope for our world, is calling to us to live in the present as if God's future has already arrived.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

America's Four Gods

Some of you may be aware of the new book by Paul Froese and Chris Bader, America's Four Gods, in which they argue that Americans picture God in four basic ways, and the way that we picture God is largely predictive of what we believe, value and do. These four understandings of God reflect the intersection of two distinct dimensions: (1) the degree to which we believe that God is engaged with the world and (2) the degree to which we believe God is judgmental:
  • 31% of Americans believe in a God who is engaged with the world and judgmental -- Bader and Froese refer to this God as the Authoritative God. 
  • 24% of Americans believe in a God who is engaged with the world but is nonjudgmental -- they refer to this God as the Benevolent God. 
  • 16% of Americans believe in a God who is judgmental but is not engaged in the world -- they refer to this God as the Critical God. 
  • 24% of Americans believe in a God who is nonjudgmental and disengaged -- they refer to this God as the Distant God. 
What groups are associated with these images? Black Protestants are the most likely group to believe in the Authoritative God (~70%) with Evangelical Protestants coming in a distant second (~50%). Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics are remarkably similar in how they see God: approximately 25% of both groups believe in an authoritative God, 25% believe a benevolent one, 20% believe in a critical one, while 30% believe in a distant one.

Are certain individuals more likely to embrace one image over another? Yes. For example, individuals with a college education and who earn more than $100,000 per year are more likely to believe in a distant God, while those who are married and older are more likely to believe in an authoritative one. People who were spanked when they were children are less likely to believe in a distant God but are very likely to believe in an authoritative one. And males tend to believe in a critical God, while females tend to envision a benevolent one.

What difference do these understandings of God play themselves out in our everyday lives? Here's a sample of their findings: 
  • Individuals who believe in an authoritative or benevolent God are much more likely to say that they are religious than are those who do not 
  • People who believe in a distant or critical God are more likely to identify themselves as politically liberal 
  • Believers in an authoritative God are much more likely to think that abortion is wrong and that homosexuality is a choice 
  • And believers in a distant or critical God are more likely to think that religion and science are incompatible 
What is interesting is that one dimension of belief that doesn't play much of a role in how we picture God is the degree to which we believe that he or she is loving. This is because while 85% of us believe that God is "love," we don't agree as to what that means. Thus, it is unhelpful as an analytic concept, and, I would argue, as a theological one because it needs to be embedded in a much larger moral context or narrative in order for it to have any practical substance (I plan to return to this topic in a later post).

Obviously, this brief summary doesn't capture all that Froese and Bader discovered. Another helpful review of the book can be found in David Briggs's "Ahead of the Curve" column. Of course, if your interest has been peaked enough, you may simply want to pick up the book.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Is Afghanistan a Lost Cause?

In a post on October 10, 2010, I mentioned that I had run across a wonderful resource: Intelligence Squared, which is a UK based organisation that stages debates around the world. The debates are held in the traditional Oxford Style, with as many as 2,500 people attending some events. Typically, those attending vote prior to and after a debate, and the winning debate team is decided by which way the vote swings. So, for instance, if prior to the debate the audience favors the propositions by 55% but after only 51% favor it, then the opposing team is considered to have won the debate.

In that intial post, I referred to a debate hosted by Intelligence Squared US, and the proposition under consideration was, "Islam is a Religion of Peace." A couple of days ago, I listened to another debate I found stimulating, one that debated the proposition, "Afghanistan is a Lost Cause." Those who argued in favor of the motion were Matthew Hoh and Nir Rosen; those who argued against it were Peter Bergen and Max Boot. Here's their bios from the Intelligence Squared US website:

Matthew Hoh is a former State Department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over US strategic policy and goals in Afghanistan in September 2009. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Matthew served in Iraq; first in 2004-2005 in Salah ad Din Province with a State Department reconstruction and governance team and then in 2006-2007 in Anbar Province as a Marine Corps company commander.

Nir Rosen is the author of Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World, about civil war, sectarianism, occupation, resistance, terror and counterinsurgency from Iraq to Lebanon to Afghanistan. His first book, In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, was published in 2006. He has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Time, Mother Jones, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Boston Review and other publications. He has been reporting from Iraq since April of 2003 and has spent over four years on the ground there. He is a fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

Peter Bergen is a print and television journalist; a senior fellow at the New America Foundation where he co-directs the Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative; a research fellow at New York University's Center on Law and Security and CNN's national security analyst. Bergen has reported for a range of newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. He is editor of the AfPak Channel, a joint publication of Foreign Policy magazine and the New America Foundation ( His most recent book, The Osama bin Laden I Know(2006), was named one of the best non-fiction books of 2006 by the Washington Post.

Max Boot is one of America’s leading military historians and foreign-policy analysts. The Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, he is also a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times, and a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and many other publications.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Aristotle, Virtue & the Youth Sports-Injury Epidemic

The virtues are making something of a comeback. Contemporary, moral philosophers such as Alasdair Macintyre ("After Virtue") and Michael Sandel ("Justice") are extolling well, their, virtue.  What is a virtue? A virtue is a trait or quality that promotes individual and/or collective well being.  According to Aristotle, a virtue lies somewhere between two extremes (what he called the golden mean).  For example, the virtue of courage lies somewhere between cowardice and heedlessness, and the virtue of charity lies somewhere between miserliness and extravagance. Moreover, the virtues are something we acquire through instruction and practice (i.e., they are not innate), which means that in order to become virtuous we need to schooled by someone who possesses the virtues we seek to acquire.

One could make a similar argument concerning the virtue of athletic excellence. One may have the requisite abilities to throw a football 70 yards or bend a soccer ball like Beckam, but without practice one doesn't acquire the skills needed to take advantage of such abilities.  However, athletic excellence, just like any other virtue, can only be acquired by avoiding the extremes of indifference and obsession.  It is easy to see why indifference does not lead one to become a great athlete, but it may be less intuitive as to why obsessiveness about a particular sport can be a bad thing.  The short answer is that too much practice incurs what economists call diminishing marginal returns. Medical evidence suggests that our bodies simply can't take it. They break down. What they need is a rest, but we don't give it to them.

This fact was recently driven home when talking with an acquaintance who was one of the top milers in Santa Clara County when he was a Freshman.  Like many runners he ran cross-country in the Fall and track in the Spring.  In the Winter he wanted to play another sport (basketball), but his track coach wouldn't let him. His coach wanted him to train year round, so he did.  Consequently, he ran between 13-15 miles a day, 365 days a year.  What happened?  Well, he never ran a faster time in the mile than he did as a Freshman. All that extra training didn't buy him another second.  What's worse, his legs eventually gave out, and he couldn't run anymore.

Or take another example: when I was in Middle School (what we used to call Junior High), a schoolmate of mine was determined to win an Olympic Gold Medal in one of the distance races.  He was constantly running. In fact, except when he was in class, he was never still. He was always moving, running in place, jogging from class to class, etc.  What happened?  His heart became so big that he had to give up running... for life!

These cases could be simply dismissed as anecdotes, except for the fact that for the past several years the medical community has been warning coaches and parents that our kids are training too much, which is causing their bodies to break down and leading to an increase in sports-related injuries ("Unhealthy Competition").  For example, a couple of years ago an article in the NY Times detailed how girls who play soccer year-around are suffering injuries at far greater rates than girls who don't ("The Uneven Playing Field" -- also, see the book, "Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports").  Similarly, the rate of arm injuries among young baseball players has been rising at an alarming rate and is strongly correlated with the advent of year-round "travel ball" tournaments and teams ("Arms-Control Breakdown"). Kids used to play baseball from January to July and then gave their arms a rest from August to December. Not any more. Now, kids as young as eight (and probably younger) play baseball year round. This can't be good for them.

In short, if athletic excellence is a virtue, then in order to acquire it, one needs to practice. Repeatedly. But there are upper limits to how much practice we need. This is especially true of our children. They need time off. There bodies need a break. And they should probably play more than one sport (Hall of Fame baseball player Cal Ripken once remarked that he believed that he became such a good infielder because he played a lot of basketball).

We can't, of course, expect our children to learn the virtues on their own.  They need to learn them from us: their parents and coaches. But that means that we need to practice and acquire the virtues as well, that we need to be able to strike a balance between indifference and obsession. We need to care, but we can't care too much. We need to push them hard enough so that they excel, but we can't push them so hard that their bodies quit on them.

Striking a balance between indifference and obsession applies to skills other than athletic excellence as well. It applies to any and all innate talents that our children may exhibit, whether they are athletic, academic, artistic or something else.  I should be clear that I make no claims that I have cornered the market on where this balance lies. However, given how the rate of athletic injuries among our youth continues to rise, I am certain that many parents and coaches either don't care or don't know where it lies either. I think it's clear that many of us have been a little too obsessive.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How Much Does the President Really Matter?

Most of you are probably familiar with the Freakanomics and SuperFreakanomics books authored by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Levitt (a devout libertarian) is an economics professor at the University of Chicago, while Dubner (I'm not sure how devout he is) is a journalist who lives in NY City.  Drawing on rational choice theory, which argues that individuals tend to respond positively to incentives and that by analyzing various incentives, a variety of human behaviors can be explained. Anyone who has read one or both of the books know that they are not only entertaining but are also quite illuminating of human behavior. One of my favorite chapters recounts the story of how Levitt was able to detect how Chicago schoolteachers improved their students' test scores by looking at the patterns of answers on the tests. Levitt was also able to uncover cheating among Sumo wrestlers by looking at their rates of winning in relation to their win-loss records in a particular tournament.

What you may not realize is that there is also a Freakanomics blog (which almost certainly attracts more traffic than this one) and podcast, both of which are also quite entertaining (and probably serving as the basis of a third Freakanomics book -- I wonder what they'll call it: SuperduperFreakanomics?). The other morning while driving to work, I listened to one of their podcasts that considered the question, "How much does the President really matter?" While there is not point in repeating here what they found, their basic answer to the question is, "Not much." There are simply too many outside forces that constrain what Presidents can and cannot do. This is especially true of the economy, which ironically has more effect on the outcome of Presidential elections than any other factor.

You can find a summary of the podcast here as well as a link to the podcast, which you can listen to on-line. You can also access the podcast through iTunes. I think most of you will find it interesting.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cheating and Sports, Part III: The Claims of Community

One of my earlier posts asked, "What are the rules about breaking the rules?" It wondered why certain forms of cheating are permitted (e.g., Gaylord Perry throwing spitters and not only getting away with it but being inducted into the Hall of Fame) while others are not (e.g., taking performance-enhancing drugs). Since that post a few incidents of cheating have occurred (e.g., Derek Jeter faking that he was hit by a pitch) that have been hailed by some as examples of "heads-up play," so again I can't help but wonder what the rules about breaking the rules are.

I can't say that I've resolved the issue, but I am beginning to think that it has something to do with whether the primary motivation lying behind the cheating is to benefit the team (i.e., winning the game is why one does it) or the individual (i.e., enhancing personal statistics). To be sure, the line between the two is blurry. When Derek Jeter faked that he was hit by a pitch, he did enhance his personal statistics (he was in a slump at the time, so the odds weren't good that he would get a hit), but still I think most people saw what he did as increasing the chances that the Yankees would win the game.  By contrast, although the Giants as a team benefited when Barry Bonds repeatedly launched baseballs into McCovey Cove, most fans (or at least most non-Giants fans) saw the underlying motivation as personal (i.e., being the all-time season and career home run hitter). (As an aside, I do think it is instructive that the Giants won their first World Series without any position player in pursuit of a major record)

Put differently, when it is the claims of community (in this case, the claims of a player's team) that are the driving motivation lying behind a player choosing to cheat in a sporting event, then it is considered to be OK to break the rules. However, if it is personal glory that is driving the cheating, then it isn't considered OK.  This is not to say that players and fans are consciously aware of what these claims are, and, as I noted above, the line between doing something for the team and doing something for oneself is often blurry (e.g., not everyone "cheered" Jeter's heads-up play). Nevertheless, I'm fairly certain that the form of  moral reasoning outlined here is often what lies behind determining what the rules are for breaking the rules.

Indeed, I would even go farther than that. I am willing to argue that most moral reasoning, whether in sports, in politics or in life, is driven by the values of the communities in which we live and move and have our being, which is why when we debate about what is right and just, we often talk right past one another, not necessarily because we don't respect one another but because we begin from different conceptions we are called as individuals and as a community to be.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Just War and the Fight Against Terrorism

The just-war tradition is guided by the goal of a just peace, which is the belief that at war's end the offending country’s social, political, economic and ecological conditions will be such that its citizens, both individually and in their common life together, are able to flourish (eudaimonia), to live lives that are meaningful and dignified (Allman and Winwright, After the Smoke Clears). The three sets of criteria of the just war tradition reflect this goal of a just peace. The first set (jus ad bellum -- justice at the time of war) places considerable restrictions on the moral ability of authorities to wage war because the tradition recognizes that the horrors that war can unleash are often difficult for a country and its people to recover from. The second set (jus in bello -- justice during war) place restraints on how wars are fought in order to minimize the damage that is done. For instance, the criterion of proportionality seeks to insure that no unnecessary destruction takes place, while the criterion of non-combatant immunity (i.e., civilians can't be deliberatively targeted or killed) recognizes that a country’s citizens need to be spared as much as possible from the ravages of war if they are to flourish after the fighting has stopped. Finally, the third set of criteria (jus post bellum -- justice after war) explicitly concerns itself with the restoration of the country to wholeness such that its citizens are able to live lives are worth living.

Because the just war tradition developed with conventional warfare in mind, it is legitimate to ask how (and if) it should be applied to the fight against terrorism, a fight that is often fought using unconventional or irregular means. I believe that the answer is that it should because the goal of a just peace is one worth fighting for but only if it is fought for justly. In particular, the principle of non-combatant immunity should loom large in how the problem of terrorism is tackled. How we can apply this principle to the fight against terrorism can be illustrated when considering the practice of targeted killing, a practice that the Israelis made famous (Walzer, Thinking Politically, p. 274). An obvious objection to the practice is that it is no different from assassination and thus prohibited by the just war tradition. That, however, is not true. The just war tradition only prohibits the killing of political leaders on the assumption that at war's end, a peace agreement will need to be hammered out with such leaders. It does not rule out the killing military personnel or enemy combatants, which the terrorists clearly are (Walzer, Thinking Politically, pp. 274-275). Thus, on the face of it, it appears that the practice is permitted by the tradition since, by definition, the practice of targeted killing seeks to avoid the killing of non-combatants.

That said, it cannot be stressed enough that the authorities need to take extra care in making their targeting decisions (Walzer, Thinking Politically, p. 275). This, however, can be quite difficult since terrorists often seek to blend in with the crowd, making detection more difficult and the loss of innocent life more likely, which is why we have to be as sure as we can that we can hit targeted persons without killing innocent people who are nearby:

Here I think we have to adopt standards that are closer to Philadelphia than Afghanistan. In a war zone, collateral damage cannot be avoided; it can only be minimized. The hard question in war is what degree of risk we are willing to accept for our own soldiers in order to reduce the risks we impose on enemy civilians. Bur when the police are chasing criminals in a zone of peace, we rightly give them no latitude for collateral damage. In the strongest sense, they must intend not to injure civilians--even if that makes their operation more difficult... That seems to me roughly the the right rule for people planning targeted killings... They can't avoid imposing some degree of risk on innocent people, and the risks will certainly be greater than those imposed by police in a city at peace, but we must insist on a strenuous effort to minimize the risks” (Walzer, Thinking Politically, p. 276).
 Targeted killing is not the only option, however, and it may not be the most desirable one. Research has shown that terrorist networks are remarkably resilient and often are able to recover quite quickly after a key leader has been eliminated. Moreover, terrorist groups generally suffer more "damage" if one of their members is captured or (better yet) defects. Defection, in particular, can shut a terrorist group's operations down for weeks or months because the group doesn’t know what information has been passed to the authorities (Eli Berman, Radical, Religious and Violent). Of course, getting someone to defect is easier said than done, but reconciliation and amnesty programs in Indonesia and Singapore have met with some success. Other evidence suggests that policies aimed at eliminating the structural conditions that help give rise to terrorist groups in the first place (e.g., building alternative schools, improving economic conditions, eliminating ungoverned spaces) can all be effective in reducing the prevalence of terrorism as well.

Most likely no single strategy, by itself, will do the trick. Instead, we will need a combination of them. Moreover, these alternative (and non-lethal) strategies, however, require an acknowledgement on our part that the fight against terrorism is ultimately a long one, which given our tendency to be an impatient people, makes adhering to the principles of the just war tradition all that more difficult. Nevertheless, if a just peace is our goal, if we want to help create a world where individuals are free to flourish, then I don't see where we have much of a choice.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Crowd Sizes, Glenn Beck and Championship Rallies

It appears that the Giants attracted about as many people to its championship rally in San Francisco as Glenn Beck did for his in Washington DC.  One interpretation of this is that sports fans take their sports much too seriously (the word, "fan," after all is a shortened version of "fanatic"). Another is that most people aren't taking Glenn Beck as seriously as some in the press are inclined to believe. I prefer the latter interpretation.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Midterm Election Results

It appears that most of my elections predictions came true. Republicans gained control of the House but failed to gain control of the Senate.  Barbara Boxer won in her attempt to retain her Senate seat, and Lisa Murkowski is making a decent run at retaining hers even though she lost the primary to Tea Party candidate (and Sara Palin favorite) Joe Miller. I was wrong about Harry Reid, though. I thought he would lose, but he proved me wrong.

So, what does this mean for President Obama's chances in two years? Well, it certainly isn't a death sentence considering that at the two year mark in Bill Clinton's Presidency, Democrats lost control of both the House and Senate.  It doesn't mean he's a lock for reelection either.  It will largely hinge on how quickly the economy recovers and how much it expands between now and Election Day 2012.  Some Wall Street insiders seems to think that the economy will benefit from the strong showing of Republicans in this election. If they are right, then one of the ironies of this election is that in the long run it may benefit President Obama more than it benefits the 2012 GOP nominee for President.

We will see, what we will see...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts: Or, Why the Giants Finally Won the World Series

Within complexity theory the term "emergence" refers to the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a series of relatively simple interactions. Complexity scholars generally refer to two types of emergence: weak and strong. Weak emergence describes how new properties arise in systems from interactions at an elemental level such that the resulting system has qualities that can be traced back to its constituent parts. Strong emergence, on the other hand, refers to those systems that have qualities that can't be directly traced back to its parts but rather to how those parts interact. Thus, the system's qualities are seen as "irreducible" to its constituent parts.  Put another way: the whole is sometimes greater than the sum of its parts ("Emergence," Wikipedia).

Much has been made that this year's San Francisco Giants team was able to knock off the Braves (not too surprising but probably the toughest series the Giants played), the Phillies (a surprise to just about everyone except SF fans -- we knew we had better pitching) and the Rangers (22 out of 28 ESPN "experts" picked the Rangers to beat the Giants) with very few stars apart from its pitching staff, especially compared to SF Giants World Series teams of the past. For example, the 1962 Giants team included future Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, while the 2002 team had (probable) future Hall of Famers Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds. The 1989 team wasn't anything to sneeze at either; it included Will "The Thrill" Clark (lifetime .303 hitter), Robby Thompson, Matt Williams and Kevin Mitchell (the 1989 National League MVP).

What is the difference between this year's team and those previous teams? Former Giant player and manager Felipe Alou probably captured it best:
Sometimes in the past, we had great teams. We had many great Giants. But "the team" was not as great as this team, if you know what I mean. A team is not necessarily a bunch of great players together. But this team -- this is a team (Cam Inman, "Past Giants Greats Never Equaled This Team").
Put simply, the Giants, as a whole, were greater than the sum of their parts.  Apart from the pitching staff, which was probably the best in the majors this year (if there were any doubters prior to the playoffs, there probably aren't any now), this team didn't have any stars (although Buster Posey comes pretty close).  Different players contributed at different times. When players who were hot during the regular season cooled off during the playoffs, others picked up the pace.  When a clutch hit was needed, someone almost always came through, and it seemed like it was a different person every time (e.g., Cody Ross, Edgar Renteria, Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres, Juan Uribe, Buster Posey, Freddy Sanchez all had key hits in the World Series).

So, yes, sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That was certainly the case with the San Francisco Giants this year. To borrow a little from complexity theory, what we have here is an example of strong emergence. Very strong emergence indeed. May it always be so.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Christians and War, Part III: Justice After War

The just-war tradition is decidedly teleological. It is driven by the goal of a just peace, which is nothing less than at war's end the social, political, economic and ecological conditions are such that citizens of the offending country are able to flourish.  It is this vision of what the purposes of a just war are that has led some theorists to argue that in addition to the criteria of jus ad bellum (justice before war) and jus in bello (justice during war), there should be a set of jus post bellum (justice after war) criteria as well.  That is, not only must there be guidelines for going to war and for fighting wars, but there should be guidelines on what to do after a war is over.  While these criteria are anything but settled, a new book by Mark Allman and Tobias Winright lists four that are worth our consideration and debate: (1) resolution (which they refer to as "just cause"), (2) reconciliation, (3) punishment and (4) restoration. 

By resolution or just cause they mean that the result of any just war should entail reaching the objectives that served as the (just) cause for going to war in the first place.  Thus, the primary parties involved must be held accountable until their mission is accomplished (i.e., blasting away and then letting the offending country pick up the pieces afterward is unacceptable), and those parties involved in the war must be prevented from taking advantage of the vanquished country's weakness and seeking additional (and unwarranted) gains.

Allman and Winright also believe that there cannot be a just peace without reconciliation. However, they are emphatic there call for reconciliation "is not about cheap grace or taking a 'forgive and forget' approach. [Rather] it involves acknowledgment of wrongdoing, admission of responsibility, punishment, forgiveness and perhaps amnesty.  Ideally, reconciliation should lead to the return of the offending party to communion. The goal is justice tempered by mercy" ("When the Shooting Stops").

That said, they also believe that the guilty should be punished for their crimes. Such punishment, they argue, should should be carried out with transparency, proportionality and by authorities other than those who led the war, so that the war's victors are not seen as acting as judge, jury and executioner. This way those meting the punishment are seen as legitimate and the punishment itself as just.

Finally, Allman and Winright argue that the goal of a just war should also involve the restoration of the offending country to wholeness so that citizens of that country can live lives that are meaningful and dignified. Thus restoration involves practical matters such as providing security through policing and the rule of law, enabling the host government to promote the common good and provide basic services, fostering economic recovery, providing rehabilitation for those victimized by the war (and events that led up to it) and removing unexploded devices and munitions to prevent injuries in the future.

As noted above theorists are just in the beginning stages of hammering out what jus post bellum criteria might look like. Nevertheless, they are certainly food for thought as the U.S. seeks to extricate itself from Iraq and Afghanistan. We surely do not want to leave until we can assure the Iraqis and Afghanis a "just peace."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Midterm Elections Redux

In an earlier post on the midterm elections, I predicted that the Republicans would gain control of the House but not the Senate (although they would make it very close). My sense is that with a week to go before the election, nothing has occurred to alter this predictions. The Republicans will gain control of the House; the only question now is, "By how much?" The last data I saw, suggested that when the dust settled the Republicans would hold somewhere around 235-240 of the 435 seats (currently, the Democrats hold 255). 

As far as control of the Senate goes, Republican control hinges largely on whether in California the Republican challenger, Carly Fiorina, can upset the incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer, which at the moment seems unlikely. Regardless of the outcome, it looks like the Senate will have a new Majority Leader because the current one, Harry Reid (from Nevada), will probably lose his reelection bid. Who will take his place is hard to say -- Diane Feinstein, perhaps -- probably not, but it will be interesting to see what happens. 

Just as interesting is whether Charlie Crist will catch Marco Rubio in the race for the Florida Senate seat (probably not) and whether Republican Lisa Murkowski (running as an independent) will beat the official Republican (and Tea Party) candidate Joe Miller (possibly).

As one of my friends likes to say, we will see what we will see...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Christians and War, Part II: The Just War Tradition

In its early years the Christian Church was predominantly pacifist, but as it was transformed from a minority religion to the official religion of the land, it became impractical for it to remain pacifist. The just war criteria arose, in part, because of this transformation, but the just war tradition not only sets itself over against pacifism but also over against more brutal forms of war.  As Michael Walzer points out in his book, Arguing About War (“The Triumph of Just War Theory (and the Dangers of Success)"), that from the start, “the theory had a critical edge: soldiers (or, at least, their officers) were supposed to refuse to fight in wars of conquest and to oppose or abstain from the standard military practices of rape and pillage after the battle was won.” Not much has changed over the centuries. Today, just war theorists still find themselves standing between two sets of theorists: pacifists, for whom war is a crime, and realists, “for whom ‘all’s fair in love and war’: inter arma silent leges (in time of war, the laws are silent)” (Walzer, "Introduction,” Arguing About War).

The just war criteria can be grouped into two sets of criteria: Those that govern the decision to go to war (jus ad bellum) and those that govern the conduct of war (jus in bello). More recently, some, such as Michael Walzer ("Introduction,” Arguing About War) and Mark J. Allman and Tobias L. Winright (“When the Shooting Stops”) have argued for a third set of criteria, jus post bellum (justice after the war), that address the theory and practice of peacemaking, military occupation and political reconstruction. I only discuss the first two below since there is little consensus over whether the third set of criteria should be included, and, if so, what they should be. I will probably return to this third set of criteria in a later post, however.

Jus ad bellum

1.      Legitimate Authority – This criterion asserts that only legitimate authorities may wage war.  The Christian just war tradition has tended to understand legitimate authority rather broadly.  It argues that authority over matters of life and death belongs to God, and God has shared this authority with the governing powers, which is why governing authorities may wage war. Examples of legitimate authorities include individuals who rule through “dynastic dissent” (e.g., kings, queens, etc.) and democratically elected officials.  An exception to this general rule is that officials who have gained their authority through legitimate means but are “bad” rulers (e.g., tyrants), forfeit their claim to legitimacy. Examples of illegitimate authorities include wars waged by private citizens (e.g., militia groups), bandits and privateers and rebellion against one’s own sovereign. An exception to this rule is that rebellion is permitted when the sovereign has lost claim to his or her legitimacy because they are tyrants or they lie. Furthermore, only soldiers under oath and under control of a sovereign can fight.  Similarly, mercenaries are not allowed to participate in war unless it is for a cause they know is just.  Clergy, the religious, and penitents are excluded from fighting, except individuals who are members of military religious orders (it used to be that a man who killed another, even in a just war, was not allowed to become a priest).

2.      Just Cause – This criterion holds that a war may be fought for only a just cause, that is a justifiable, defensible and morally necessary cause (given the alternatives).  To be just the offense must be actual and verifiable, intentional and of substantial importance (i.e., it cannot be a trivial cause).  Furthermore, an offense cannot be provoked; that is, a queen or president can’t goad someone into committing an offense so that they can then declare war.  The offense may be an aggression necessitating defense, a threat demanding deterrence (e.g., WMD’s), or an injustice demanding reparation (e.g., the Holocaust). It can be committed against a third nation, against either an ally or innocent subjects on whose behalf a legitimate authority intervenes. Just war theorists often disagree about when intervention on behalf of an oppressed population is legitimate. Walzer believes that the presumption must be against intervention, but he admits that there are times when the evil being committed is so great (e.g., the Holocaust) that intervention is necessary.

3.      Right Intention, Right Motivation – This criterion states that in order for a war to be just it must be fought with a right intention. The ultimate goal must be the restoration of a just peace.  Wars can’t be fought for national honor or territorial, economic aggrandizement and so on. It also must be fought with the right motivation. There needs to be genuine concern for the victims of the offense as well as love for the enemy, which is why demonstrating mercy after victory is sometimes listed by some as a criterion. Examples of inadmissible motivation include hatred, revenge, cruelty, love of violence or material gain. In other words, a cause may be justified, but participation in it may still be sinful if the intention or motivation is wrong in any one of these ways.

4.      Last Resort – The just-war tradition contends that war must be the last resort, only after everything else has been tried or considered.  Of course, how one defines “everything else” is somewhat problematic and subject to much debate since there is almost always something else that can be tried.  Generally, what theorists have in mind is that the government needs to make a good faith effort to avoid war through negotiation, mediation, arbitration, appeals to international tribunals, cooling off period(s), and formal declaration of war, preceded by a warning and followed by time for the “offending party” to sue for peace. If all of these are sincerely tried (and fail), then most just war theorists would say that a good faith effort has been made.

5.      Probability of Success – Finally, in order for a war to be just, success must be probable. If the wrong can’t be righted by going to war, there is no point in going to war.  Of course, it is not always that straightforward when it comes to estimating the probability of succeeding. Sometimes, wars that look easy to win turn out to be much more difficult than anticipated.

Jus in bello

1.      Proportionality – Once war begins the punishment must be proportionate to the offense (an eye for an eye…). Thus, the means used must be indispensable and necessary. Any intended destruction inflicted on the enemy must serve the stated ends of the just cause. We cannot destroy an enemy battalion simply because we can or because we seek a postwar advantage in further weakening the enemy. In short, unnecessary combat must be avoided even in a just cause.  Put simply, there should be no unnecessary death or wanton destruction. We can’t poison wells or rivers, plant land mines, and/or bomb or profane places of worship or sanctuary.  Furthermore, the enemy must always be allowed to sue for peace. We can’t kill an enemy who has surrendered. Other considerations often included under this criterion are that cease-fire agreements must be respected, occupied populations should be governed justly, and we can’t improperly use truce flags, enemy uniforms, or distinctive badges of groups such as the Red Cross, in order to lull the enemy into an ambush.

2.      Non-Combatant Immunity/Dignity of Life – This criterion argues that the means used in war must protect the innocent (non-combatants). Armies must not intentionally or directly kill non-combatants.  During a just war, they have an obligation to distinguish combatants from non-combatants and seek to minimize noncombatant death. This criterion, of course, essentially rules out obliteration bombing or the dropping of atomic bombs.  Noncombatants include all who are not considered a threat: (1) women (traditionally), children (traditionally), the elderly and the infirm, (2) clergy, the religious and foreigners, (3) unarmed individuals pursuing ordinary vocations, and (4) soldiers who are on leave or have become prisoners of war.  Noncombatants include all of the above not just those who oppose their country’s participation in the war (e.g., German women and children who supported Germany during WW II would still be considered non-combatants who should be protected from the waging of war).

It is important to note that in order for a war to be just, all of the criteria must be met, a point that is often lost in debates over whether a particular war is just or unjust. Students of mine at Santa Clara often fell into this trap. Anxious to prove that a particular war was unjust, they would attempt to argue that it was unjust on all counts (i.e.., in terms of all seven of the criteria). This led them to sometimes make poor arguments concerning one criterion that took away from the force of their arguments concerning the other criteria.

The fight against terrorism raises its own issues, in particular to the notion of noncombatant immunity since terrorists tend not to make such a distinction and often hide in places that makes targeting them without incurring collateral damage impossible. I will need to take this issue up in a later post since it deserves an extended discussion.

Three books worth considering if you are interested in exploring this topic further are (1) John Howard Yoder’s, When War is Unjust (Yoder was a pacifist but held the just-war tradition in high regard and taught a class on it for ROTC students when he was at Notre Dame), (2) Darrel Cole’s, When God Says War is Right (a somewhat more conservative take on the just war tradition), Michael Walzer’s, Just and Just Wars (considered a classic by many).