Thursday, January 25, 2007

Praying to the Buddha

Is Saint Josaphat, found on the Christian calendar, a Latinization of the name, "Bodhisattva" - Gautama, the Buddha?

Read the excellent and very thought provoking article on interreligious dialogue linked above to find out the answer to this question and explore some other very interesting questions as well....


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The State of the Union Address

I'm a little late getting this out today, and have been too busy to reflect deeply on the speech.

For the first time since 2002, I was able to listen to an entire speech by Bush without wanting to throw my TV out the window.

It's not that I agreed with every single point. I didn't. I just wasn't as steamed as usual. Maybe it was because I know that there is a check on the man's power now.

On the domestic issues, I agree with Bush that we need a balanced budget.

I agree with the general idea that we need comprehensive immigration reform without animosity. I'm not sure I agree with the details - such as without amnesty.

I haven't entirely made up my mind on the idea of tax credits for health care. It seems to me that it may provide incentives to employers to eliminate benefits. I need more details.

For the first time, Bush admitted global climate change is a serious issue.

There were some points on foreign policy that surprised me, because I do agree with them, and have argued those points on this blog against some of his supporters.

Here's an example:

..., I ask that you fund the Millennium Challenge Account, so that American aid reaches the people who need it, in nations where democracy is on the rise and corruption is in retreat.

And let us continue to support ,..., [international] debt relief ,..., the best hopes for lifting lives and eliminating poverty.
In the same portion of the speech, he also asked Congress to continue to fund the fight against HIV/AIDs in Africa, and to provide an additional $1.2 billion to combat malaria in 15 African nations.

I honestly believe that meeting the Millenium Challenge, reducing debt for developing nations, and assisting developing nations is the most effective anti-terrorism strategy we can adopt.

Bush also proposed an alternative to military service that he called "a volunteer civilian reserve corps".

Frequent readers know that I have argued we should have a draft, with some sort of non-military volunteer corps as an option for those who renounce violence.

There was no mention of a draft.

However, was Bush making the suggestion that we who believe in non-violent conflict resolution can play a role serving the country with national support?

On the war, itself, Bush claimed the following:
This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in.
I cannot judge the man's intentions.

If he says he never intended or forsaw the high potential for sectarian strife in a post invasion Iraq, I have to believe he never intended or foresaw such a thing.

Cheney did forsee such a thing as far back as May of 1992.
Once we rounded up Saddam, then the question is what do you do? You're going to put a government in his place. Presumably, you're not just going to turn your back and walk away. You have to put some kind of a government in its place. And then the question comes is it going to be a Shi'a government or a Kurdish government, or maybe a Sunni government, or maybe it ought to be based on the old Baathist Party regime, or some combination thereof. How long is that government to be able to stay in power without US military support to keep it there? How long can we maintain the coalition?
Many people think that we opponents of the 2003 invasion are simply too idealistic - that we simply think all war is inherently evil and want everyone to sit in a circle singing kum-by-ya.

And I confess to idealistic tendencies and a leaning towards active non-violence instead of military solutions to conflict.

That said, I have maintained from June of 2002 to present that there may be such a thing as a just war - a war that is not unjust.

The problem with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is that it was an unjust and even illegal military action.

And looking at history, Sacred Scripture, and Sacred Tradition, when you wage an unjust war, bad things happen.

Furthermore, it was an unnecessary military action, with the exact results we see today being the most predictable outcome of the invasion.

I predicted over and over in 2002 and have repeated for the past four years that if we invade Iraq, there will be sectarian violence that will pull us into a long term occupation that we cannot win.

Which brings me to another issue in Bush's speech.

He kept saying that the consequences of defeat would be terrible, and therefore we must give one more chance for victory.

I agree with the President that the consequences of defeat will be horrible. I believed that in 2002.

I also have believed since 2002 that victory is nearly impossible.

It cannot realistically be achieved.

In my opinion, there simply is no strategy, real or imagined, that will produce a victory for the United States in Iraq. There never was.

The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can begin to mitigate the damage of this seemingly inevitable defeat.

Could the latest strategy of a troop surge where troops clear and hold rather than clearing and moving out mitigate the consequences of defeat?


But make no mistake, defeat seems inevitable.

Short of using the tactics of a dictator, there simply will not be a day in the next 10 years when Iraq is a liberated and democratic and prosperous nation, with all parties unaligned with Iran, void of terrorists, and free of all sectarian violence.

There may come a day in more than 10 or 15 years when Iraq is free and prosperous, but that day is nowhere in the near future. It never was.

Given that the neoconservatives who make up PNAC have long wanted a permanent presence in the Gulf, it would not surprise me if at least some of the decision makers to go to war in Iraq planned and hoped for the results we see today in order to keep troops there.

Did Bush hope for the current results?

I do not know, and it really doesn't matter. What matters is that we are in an unwinnable war, and any talk of victory is nonsense - a delusion.

The real question is how to mitigate the damage. If a troop surge and a new strategy have a reasonable chance of mitigating the damage, it may be worth a shot.

Otherwise, it may be time to simply get out and let the Iraqi's fix their own problems - aware that this creates dangers for the United States that we need to be prepared to handle.

Don't think of it as abandoning Iraq so much as empowering Iraq to self govern.

As far as fear that terrorists may thrive in a self governed Iraq, that became a very high probability the very day we invaded.

That's one of the reasons why we should not have invaded!


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Right to Life Rally

I took the day off from work and blogging yesterday. My wife and daughter and I went to the Right to Life rally on the mall in Washington, DC.

My two year old daughter is becoming somewhat of a professional protestor.

She's also attended two rallies on the mall for immigration reform, one to stop the genocide in Dafur, a fund-raising AIDs walk, two peace marches against the war in Iraq, and a walk for the homeless.

Regarding the life rally, on a positive note, since the last time I went to this rally, there has been a very dramatic increase in young people participating in the march.

There were teenagers everywhere, and it seemed that teenage girls outnumbered teenage boys about three to one.

That should give great hope to pro-lifers. A young generation is going to fill our shoes.

And the overall number of people seemed quite large. It may have been the second largest crowd I'd seen - though such things are hard to tell from the ground.

I'll look for counts later today.

There were a couple of things that bothered me.

One of the reasons I haven't participated in the march in the past couple of years is the "nuttiness" of some of the protestors.

I started feeling I could be more effective by marching less, and giving my time, talent, and treasure more to activities like Project Gabriel - which assists women in crisis pregnancies.

Yesterday, I saw a sign saying something to the effect of "The Vatican II exterminators are lying to you. You DO need to be Catholic to be saved."

In the distance, I saw a group I've seen in years past waving red flags saying something in gold letters like "tradition, family, country" and wearing what appears to be military uniforms.

I couldn't see them well this year, and I may have the words of their banner slightly wrong.

People were handing out flyers about the corruption of the liturgy and visions of Mary regarding the end of the world.

A rabbi spoke from the platform more about the evil of homosexuality than about the sanctity of human life - with applause from the crowd.

Several pot shots were made by speakers against some vague "liberals" who have no morals and no regard for human life.

The organizers played "God Bless America" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" while many in the crowd sang and swayed.

A large group of protestors carried signs saying "Brownback for President" - probably from his district.

I wished I could have made my way up onto the platform and declare myself a gay communist for life!

Not that I'm gay, or a communist.

I just felt frustrated that there was a lack of focus on what really should have been bringing the crowd together - the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.

Most of this was fringe activity, of course. I do not mean to suggest that the entire rally was unfocused.

Yet, even where it was focused, it seemed that this year, more than ever, the protestors were wearing Catholicism on their sleeves.

Everywhere you looked, banners said X or Y Catholic school for life. Banners had images of Jesus and Mary at the front of the overwhelming majority of groups.

I was wondering where the heck the Evangelical Protestants were? Where were the Hindus for life I had seen in years past?

Where were the atheists for life (yes - there was a group with that banner a few years back)?

Back in about 1993, I even saw a rainbow flag with gays for life! I didn't see it yesterday.

If one were not paying too close attention, yesterday's rally appeared to be more like a youth retreat/rally for Catholic high school students than anything else.

Of course, these young Catholics will probably remember the experience as a strong emotional moment that will keep them committed to the cause of life for some time to come.

In that sense, it's all good for the cause.

But in the sense of reaching out to the undecided, or the non-Catholic who is somewhat sympathetic to the cause, or the pro-lifer who radically disagrees with most pro-lifers on other issues, yesterday's rally was dissappointing.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I'm Back

I haven't been blogging very regularly for some time.

There are a variety of reasons. I started off just taking a few days off for Thanksgiving.

Then I had a minor surgical procedure that left me in bed and in pain longer than expected.

Then it was Christmas.

Then I had a hectic return to work.

As I took all this time off blogging, I've been able to spend more time on other things, including more reading.

Lately, the biggest block to my writing is trying to focus my thoughts as they emerge from reading diverse material (including my efforts to get through the Bible in a year as a New Year's resolution).

We're taught in America that supply and demand is the law of the market.

As a anti-Bush Republican who voted for Ronald Reagan in my first election at age 19, I once uncritically embraced supply side economics, which basically argues that when supply is up, prices come down, commodities sell, and tax revenues increase as the economy grows.

If prices remain low, we can buy more with our money. As we buy more, jobs are created to keep feeding supply. More people employed increases the tax base even if tax rates are reduced.

It was once argued that we could reduce tax rates and balance the federal budget at the same time, while simultaneously reducing inflation and unemployment.

A balanced budget also requires keeping government accountable for the spending of tax dollars – demanding efficient service, cutting out waste, and honoring the principle of subsidiarity that empowers local agencies to do what they can do better than the federal government.

In order to boost supply, the best thing government can do according to supply side economics is keep taxes low and regulate as little business activity as possible so that profit can be reinvested in the means of production and grow more wealth.

The idea is that wealth "trickles down" as investors continually pursue greater return on investments in the means of production.

Yet, the profit motive keeps people inspired to risk investment.

It makes a certain amount of sense, though some (even Bush Sr) have called the theory "voodoo economics".

Let's say that there is demand for 100 balls of yarn.

If Joe's Yarn Company has the capacity to make only 50 balls of yarn, Joe might charge a high price for yarn so long as he has a monopoly.

If Sue's Yarn Company comes along and produces another 50 balls of yarn, so that Joe and Sue together make 100 balls of yarn in a market with a demand for 100 balls of yarn, the price comes down at Joe's yarn due to competition from Sue's Yarn Company.

If Joe's Yarn Company improves its processes to produce 100 balls of yarn in the same time it took to make 50, Joe can now sell his balls of yarn at half of Sue's price to drive her out of business, and restore his monopoly.

Once Joe's Yarn has restored its monopoly, yarn prices can be jacked back up.
This is what Standard Oil did to drive the competition out of business. Thus, America created anti-trust legislation to break up monopolies.

On the other hand, the government also established a monopoly in the U.S. Post Office.

So, we see that the free enterprise system does sometimes require some regulation. Yet, fiscal conservatives tend to want to keep regulation to a minimum.

However, in the yarn scenario, prior to anti-trust legislation, if you owned a monopoly on yarn production, it would do you no good to produce 200 balls of yarn.

The price would not necessarily go down on balls of yarn.

You might try to create new markets for yarn. If you cannot find new markets, you'd try to cut your company costs by scaling back production to the level of demand.

The point I am making is that there is such a thing as over-supply, and increasing supply does not automatically equate a reduction in prices.

Let's back up a moment to the stage where both Joe and Sue are producing 50 balls of yarn each in a market with a demand for 100 balls of yarn.

In a system with such equilibrium, we have what is likely the "fair price" for the commodity. Let's call that fair price the "value" in order to distinguish it from the "price".

Why distinguish "value" from "price"?

Well, we just saw that supply and demand can effect price, but the question I want to ask is whether the value of the commodity changed?

Some folks will recognize that this question has been raised before - by Karl Marx.

I've been reading a bit of Marx lately among other things, and I found this notion that commodities have a value distinct from price intriguing.

Marx goes on to ask how we compare two very different commodities and establish their value relative to one another.

If a ball of yarn has a value of three dollars, how do we establish that a magazine of the same price on the book rack is of equal value to that ball of yarn?

Marx suggests that there is something commodities share in common that allows us to discern that two unlike things have the same value.

As with the yarn, supply and demand could effect the price of the magazine - but not the value.

If magazine production on the supply side is equal to the demand side, and the price settles at three dollars, the magazine has the same value as the ball of yarn.

But how do we establish that a magazine and a ball of yarn have the same value?

Why not arbitrarily charge 100 dollars for the balls of yarn, and fifty cents for the magazines?

We capitalists know that competition in the free market keeps that sort of arbitrary pricing from occurring.

Yet, we can still wonder if there is something inherent to the commodity, itself, that helps us discern rather intuitively that 100 dollars for a ball of yarn is arbitrarily too high.

In reading a little Marx, I ran across a quotation where he, himself, stated he was not a Marxist!

The real issue Marx is raising is not how to control price, but how to compare value.

His argument is that when all things are equal (supply and demand are in equilibrium in a competitive market), the value of the commodity, distinguished from the price, really represents the amount of truly necessary work crystalized in the production of the commodity.

By truly necessary work, Marx acknowledges that not all workers actually work the same.

A lazy man may make only 3 balls of yarn in a 12 hour day. A more diligent worker may make 12 balls of yarn in 12 hours by not wasting a single moment.

If only these 15 balls of yarn are sold and demand is only for 15 balls of yarn, and the balls of yarn sell at their value of three dollars, the more productive worker would make 36 dollars, while the lazy worker would only make 9 dollars.

That makes sense to us Americans. The worker is worth her or his wage, the Bible says. Hard work deserves a just reward, say the popes and American culture.

Let's say neither worker, call them Joe and Sue again, is lazy.

Both Joe and Sue work diligently for 12 hours not wasting a single moment. Joe only makes 3 balls of yarn because he does everything by hand. Sue, on the other hand, uses a machine that is more efficient and she makes 12 balls of yarn.

In this case, the value one of Joe's balls of yarn has the same value as four of Sue's balls of yarn according to Marx.

This appears counter-intuitive at first glance.

But if we think about it, we see this sometimes occurs in a free market capitalist system.

Hand made furniture, for example, often sells at quite a higher price than mass production.

The key to apprehending this is that the items are not really exactly alike.

A handmade commodity may take longer than a mass produced commodity, but it may also have higher quality due to the amount of work put into the production of the handmade commodity.

This increased price is tied to something of true value that we perceive in the commodity as an object, such as the quality or unique artistic merits of hand-made commodities.

Yet, the point is that it takes more work to produce hand made items, and this work becomes crystalized in the value of the item, and is therefore reflected in the fairest price.

Marx is not denying that supply and demand or advances in technology or variations in the way people work all play a part in effecting prices of commodities.

His point is merely that the value is established by the amount of work crystalized in the production of the commodity.

Of course, we might wonder what the value of a buggy whip is in a society where cars are mass produced at affordable prices, even when sold at exactly their value.

The demand is much lower for buggy whips today than it was in 1806, or even 1906.
When the first Model T came off the assembly line, many buggy whip manufacturers probably were not thinking about the long range implications.

Technology changes the economy, and the entire culture.

When the first Model T rolled off the assembly line, an automobile was definitely conceived as a luxury. In some areas, such as New York City, one may be able to live without a car because of extensive public transportation. Perhaps in many small towns, a car is unnecessary because one can walk or ride a bike.

Yet, for many Americans, a reliable means of getting to work on time to support the family is a necessity. Even if one makes the effort to car-pool in order to live simply and protect the environment, someone has to possess a car. The car is no longer a luxury for everyone.

For some, it is a necessity.

I think that some Christians who rightly wish to critique our very often consumerist, materialist, and even hedonistic or narcissistic cultural tendencies sometimes make the mistake of claiming anything our ancestors did not need, we do not need today.

Unless you can work from home on a computer, afford the homes close to your office, or own enough land to grow your own food supply all year round, you need transportation to work. The means of transportation may not be a luxury if your survival depends on it.

The same is true of the computer on a grander social scale.

Had the computer technology not developed at the time it had, our Social Security system may have collapsed under the strain of keeping the records on paper. Yet, Social Security existed prior to the widespread use of computers.

Marx admits the role technology plays in changing culture and society and supply and demand.

He not only admits it, but emphasizes the role as part of his argument that raising wages does NOT automatically raise prices!

There are many factors that effect price, and there is no inherent reason wages alone would be a primary driver of price.

And therein is the crux of Marx's critique of unbridled free market capitalism.
Marx asks why we assume that raising wages must increase the price of commodities?

If the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of work necessary to produce the commodity, and the price fluctuates due to supply and demand, what difference does increasing the wage at the expense of decreased profit make to the price?

Marx goes further and suggests that the owner of capital is actually stealing from the worker by making any profit at all.

The argument makes some degree of sense.

If the value of a commodity is the amount of work that went into its production, then it follows that where supply and demand are in equilibrium, the commodity cannot be sold above its value in a competitive market.

If a commodity cannot be sold above its value, and its value is defined by the amount of work necessary to produce it, then the entire price of the commodity would be split equally among the workers who had hand in the production of the item.

If there were any variance in wage, that variance would be based solely on the difference in labor contributed to the production of the product.

Of course, a factory requires what we call "capital expenditures", such as buying machine parts.

According to Marx, this does wind up being part of the value and price because the machine was made by other workers. The makers of machines are part of manufacturing yarn and magazines. They are paid when the factory corporately pays the true value of the machine.

But the cost of capital expenses such as machines is not a deduction from profit. Rather, it is part of the value of the final commodity produced.

All profit is stolen from the worker, and split up among landowners who have no part of production. The rent for an office building is stolen from the laborer.

If the landlord took a mortgage to buy the land, he may be splitting what he stole from the worker with the lender, but the rent is still ill begotten money.

Of course, interest on loans is also a form of theft in Marxism, since the idea is to profit from the labor of others without doing anything yourself.

Any profit given to a shareholder who is not working in production is stolen from the laborer.

It doesn't matter who is receiving the profit or under what guise. Anyone making money without contributing labor to the production of the commodity is a thief, according to Marx.

To rephrase, in Marx's view, anyone taking a share of the value who did not put work into the production of the commodity is stealing from the worker - since the work crystalized in the production of the commodity establishes the value.

At the time Marx was writing, few workers owned land - even their own houses were rented.

When Marx condemns private ownership of property, he does not mean people cannot have a home for all practical purposes.

What he was criticizing was a landowner exploiting workers by skimming profit from his labor, and then charging him rent for his home. These owners of capital did nothing to actually produce the commodity, in Marx's opinion.

The idea that a worker might be a homeowner with land that is appreciating and that the worker might be paid with stock options and provided opportunities to buy company stock at reduced price or invest in a 401K was not imagined in Marx's day.

Even unions were violently opposed in Marx's day, and workers were clearly exploited, with children also being exploited.

Workers often lived in sub-human housing without adequate food or medical care, working 12 hour days up to seven days per week.

Slavery was still legal in some places when the Communist manifesto was first printed in 1848.

The life style of many current American and European workers was not imagined.

Free enterprise in America seems to have worked far better than any Marxist system devised so far. I am not posting this to advocate Communism. With Marx, I will say that I am not a Marxist.

Yet, we Americans are so conditioned to be anti-communist that we don't pay Marx's valid points much attention.

I am thinking about Marx's point in relation to the question of outsourcing American jobs to a country like India.

From a business perspective, an information technology or telecommunications service provider can reduce the cost of labor significantly by hiring in India, rather than paying American wages.

Not only does this increase the potential profit margin, but where the savings are largest, it also allows the company to increase profit even as they decrease price to the consumer of their services. Thus, the buyer and the seller both benefit.

Not only do the buyer and the seller benefit, but the Indian benefits from a higher wage than he would otherwise earn, which allows him to spend more money in India, and helps a developing nation to grow its economy.

Who knows? As the Indian economy grows, the Indian may even gain purchasing power equity with the American over time.

It sounds like everyone benefits, except the American worker who cannot find a new job with comparable compensation.

So far, American unemployment and underemployment have not reached a point where people are up in arms.

The presumption is that if we all keep our skills sharp, we'll find new ways to make a living that are challenging, meaningful, and financially rewarding.

It may even be true that in the end, nobody is worse off and some are better off due to outsourced jobs.

Free enterprise allows economies to grow wealth and produce new wealth where it did not exist before.

The Republican in me buys the notion that the economy grows - that total global wealth is not a static state.

Rather than fighting for a larger slice of the pie, we can work together to bake a bigger pie until the pie is so big nobody could walk away wanting more.

But I want to back up a minute to where Marx seems to be correct.

Why is it that after adjusting for the currency exchange, the worker in India can be hired at a lower wage than the American worker?

It seems that the only way this is possible is that the wage of the Indian worker simply does not have the same purchasing power as the wage of the American worker.

While it may be true that the Indian is paid better than he would be paid if the American based company did not hire in India, the simple fact is that the Indian worker is not being paid a just wage!

If we establish that the amount of work crystalized in the production of software applications is such that the value of the software allows the worker to buy a three car garage in America, whatever we pay the Indian should also buy a three car garage in India.

If the Indian only has the purchasing power to afford a one car garage, it does not matter that his family or neighbors can't afford to own a home at all. That worker is still not being paid his worth according to the true value of the commodity produced.

Of course, we could argue that the American worker was simply overpaid.

The price of software application development may have been artificially inflated above the value in the 1990's due to high demand and limited supply.

If this were true, then outsourcing jobs to India would seem to be the free hand of capitalism working to restore equilibrium.

I’d like to posit that somewhere between the horrible conditions of workers at the time Marx was writing, and the three car garage, there is a minimum standard – a just and living wage – a minimum wage.

The just and living wage is not a raw dollar amount, per se.

Rather, it is purchasing power of necessary commodities (including health care).

It is an assurance that the worker receives a wage that reflects the value of his or her labor that went into the production of a commodity or the provision or a service (including even intellectual service and entertainment).

Does the minimum wage worker, or the avergage employee at the nations largest employer, Wal-Mart, make a living wage working full time?

Many of the type of people who read my blog would instinctively feel that nobody needs a three car garage, and the American worker has no right to this sort of life-style.

This brings me to another book I’ve been reading that I want to tie to Marx. The other book is by Arthur Simon and is called How Much is Enough: Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture.

I’ve been writing enough for now, so I’ll post more as I continue to collect my thoughts.

I can't guarentee that I will be posting within the next 24 hours, but more to come soon....


Friday, January 05, 2007

More Troubling Scripture Passages

It's been a hectic day as I returned to work this week after considerable time off for the holidays, so I'm a little late posting today.

As I indicated yesterday, I am reading through the Bible in a year as a New Year's resolution, with an eye in particular to passages I find "troubling".

This morning's reading was a doozy. I'm through Genesis 11-13 today according to the plan.

In chapter 11, we saw that God deliberately set out to sow discord in the human race because we were getting a bit too haughty by building a tower to heaven.

One has to wonder about this image of God.

He just got done in yesterday's narratives wiping out all the wicked people by means of a flood. I was willing to excuse this cleansing by means of death on the grounds that people were wicked because there was discord.

Now we see that discord is not what makes us wicked.

Rather, when we work peacefully together to do great things, that is what makes us wicked, and discord is the punishment for our pride.

And poor ol' YHWH can't seem to get anything right.

One has to wonder, too, why the massive skyscrapers all over the world today don't call down the wrath of God.

Or, do they (i.e. - 9/11 was just a foreshadowing of things to come)?

Moving on, chapter 12 really gets bizzare.

We meet Abram, who will become Abraham, and Sarai, who will become Sarah. They are husband and wife.

To make a long story short, they journey into Egypt in their seventies, where Abram grows fearful that Sarai's beauty will arouse jealousy among the Egyptians. Therefore, he and Sarai agree to tell everyone they are brother and sister.

This ruse gets worse.

Just as Abram feared, the Egyptians do find this elderly woman quite the catch, and the Pharoah wants to marry her.

At this point, you'd think a holy man who is going to become the model of faith for the world's three great monotheist religions would 'fess up and admit that he had been slightly dishonest with everyone.

But no.

Abram not only continues the ruse, but Sarai is taken into Pharoah's harem, where Saria and Pharoah do become married, and Abram is paid a handsome dowry in the deal.

When things start going bad for the Egyptians, Pharoah figures out that he had been tricked and God is upset with him over something he did in invincible ignorance.

Again, what sort of image of God is this.

Pharoah doesn't kill Abram as Abram had feared.

The real moral hero of this story is Pharoah, who seems to be a pretty upstanding guy who would never willfully take another man's wife, cares about the well being of the nation entrusted to him, would never kill a man unnecessarily, and seems to want to obey God as best he can.

Instead of killing Abram, the Pharoah gives the old man a verbal beating for lying and tells him and Sarai to get the heck out of the land of Egypt. But he lets Abram keep the dowry - which is how Abram winds up dying a rich man later on!

Of course, anyone who has read the Bible knows we're going to see this exact same story again. Abram doesn't seem to learn a lesson, and repeats this later with a different king. But why should he change? It seems a pretty good ploy for obtaining wealth!

The questions this story raises....

The obvious non-moral questions is whether we are to really believe that the Egyptians were all that hot for a woman in her seventies.

Maybe she was younger than Abram, since, strictly speaking, the text only gives Abram's age. I'm cheating a bit by knowing that Sarai's age is given a bit later, and she isn't that many years younger than Abram.

But let's talk about morally troubling questions....

I don't know about you, but despite my feminist leanings where I don't want to think of my wife as property, I confess I'd be in a jealous rage if my wife were sleeping with the king. And I don't think it is morally wrong that I would be jealous in such an instance.

Call me an old fashioned conservative if you want, but I think spousal jealousy is natural law so long as the jealousy has a basis in reality!

What kind of man would carry this sort of ruse this far?

Even if Sarai somehow managed to avoid consumating the marriage, Abram seemed willing to let the ruse go all the way.

And what sort of model of trusting faith in God is it to lie about such things? Isn't lying a sin?

I don't know about you, but I find the story "troubling".


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Here's a Real American Hero

First Lieutenant Ehren Watada joined the military in March of 2003.

He was willing to risk his life in defense of America.

At the time, he firmly believed that Iraq was involved in 9/11 and he was certain that Saddam Hussein possessed large stockpiles of WMDs that posed an imminent threat to the United States.

In early March of 2003, I knew that Iraq was not involved in 9/11, and the Administration was not clearly claiming that, though they certainly implied it.

I also knew that the argument that Iraq possessed WMDs was extremely weak and there was plenty of counter-evidence (not least of which was that the U.N. inspectors under Hans Blix did not find any).

Over time, Lt. Watada began to realize that people like me who were screaming that this war was immoral and illegal as far back as 2002 were not nut cases. We always had the facts on our side - and the war is immoral and illegal.

Over time, Lt. Watada began to realize that Iraq was not tied to 9/11, and the Administration was not even explicitly claiming this - Bush even gradually came to explicitly deny it - and there was plenty of evidence it wasn't true available in public media even in March of 2003.

Over time, Lt. Watada began to realize that even as far back as 1991, it was known that Iraq did not possess WMDs, and that the Administration knew this or should have known this in 2003.

Again, he realized that the information was available to anyone who really cared enough to seek it out.

It was in respected mainstream media outlets, but often was quickly drowned out by other daily news.

Over time, he became aware of the neoconservative plans to wage war with Iraq that pre-dated 9/11 by years and were based on nothing to do with WMDs or terrorism.

And Lt. Watada finally reached the point last June where he refused to be deployed in Iraq on the grounds that the war is "immoral and illegal".

He remains on base of his own free will and is facing a court martial.

He faces six years in prison, a dishonorable discharge and a loss of pay, but states that it is worth it if his actions inspire people to look at the facts.

Watada believes that he has sworn an oath to defend the constitution, and that the executive branch of our government has violated the principles of that constitution and become a threat to the American way of life as grave as terrorism.

He refuses to fight in Iraq on moral grounds and is willing to face the consequences.

He states that many soldiers privately have expressed support or respect for his stance. Would that more who support him make the same stand!

What if they held a war, and nobody came?

This is heroic, and I applaud Lt. Watada!


Troublesome Biblical Passages

One of my New Year's resolutions is to read through the entire Bible for 2007.

This is not the first time I have done this, though I wanted to refresh myself in God's word.

I thought that this year, my aim would be to focus my attention in a particular way on "troublesome passages".

Of course, I am also open to those "aha moments" when a passage seems to leap off the page and speak directly to my life circumstance and the depths of my heart.

Any prayerful reading of Scripture must be open to this.

I am also open to simply noticing those passages that support a belief I already hold or clear up any confusion I have regarding doctrine or practice of my Christian faith.

And by "troublesome", I don't mean the passages that we know are true, but challenging - such as Jesus' high moral standards regarding generosity or forgiveness or self sacrifice or non-violence or chastity and so forth.

Nor do I mean those sections of Scripture that seem cumbersome and dry and devoid of contemporary relevance such as a genealogy or the detailed description of the construction of a temple.

I know from my prior reading of Scripture that there were narratives described in the Bible that I found "troubling" - such as Moses commanding the Levites to kill their own relatives for worshipping the golden calf made by Aaron (Ex 32:27).

I haven't actually read all the way to Exodus yet, but this passage is a great example of what I mean by "troublesome" and it has been a passage I have puzzled over for almost twenty years.

What is "troubling" here in my mind is that the command seems immoral, and yet, Moses claims (according to the text) that he is speaking for God in the command to kill - and we hold that this text is somehow the word of God.

Why is Moses morally justified claiming that God commands killing that is not defense against deadly aggression in His name?

Where in this passage is the respect for religious liberty inherent in the respect for the human person made in the divine image, which the Church now teaches as a moral obligation?

Why would God be so upset that the people sought to make a symbol of his presence? Don't we do the same today when we make crosses, or crucifixes, or the star of David or any other religious symbol?

It doesn't seem clear that the Israelites were denying the existence of the God who brought them out of Egypt. Aaron even says of the golden calf, "This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (Ex 32:4).

Surely, the people knew that the "idol" itself was merely a representation, since they watched Aaron make it and they were present during the escape from Egypt and knew that no cows were involved in parting the Red Sea.

Further, why does Aaron get "off the hook" and even remain a priest after the incident, while 3,000 others are slaughtered? Where is the "fairness" or justice in the implementation of this punishment?

Of course, the famous passage where Abraham sets out to sacrifice Isaac is another example of the type of passage I have in mind. The many wives of David trouble me when he is called a man after God's heart in the Acts of the Apostles.

Of course, the scholars may present all sorts of answers to these questions that either set the passage in its historical and literary context, even suggesting that the narratives have mythic overlays to make points in ancient cultures that we fail to apprehend by taking too literally.

It is not my intention in this year's reading through the Bible to seek these sorts of answers to my questions.

My intention is to seek the question - not the answer.

Likewise, the theologians and apologists may have attempted to reconcile what seems immoral by our standards with our own current understanding of morality in various ways.

Again, it is not my intention to seek the answers, but the questions.

Of course, if one wishes to suggests answers in my comboxes, knock yourself out....

I want to dwell on passages that even my recollection of the insight of my courses in higher criticism or my familiarity with the way Scripture is interpreted by the magisterium in Sacred Tradition don't seem to provide much insight at an initial glance.

I am not specifically looking for the passages that create an apparent apologetic quandary for the Roman Catholic Church in dialogue with other believers who consider the Bible divinely inspired.

Nor am I looking for the passages that seem to conflict with modern science if taken literally.

Rather, I am reading with an eye for those passages that simply seem to make little sense to anyone in today's world on the first reading - whether a believer or non-believer - whether Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox Christian, or Jew, or even a Muslim or Hindu.

It is not my intention to delve too deeply into seeking to solve the meaning of these passages as I run across them. To do so might slow me down too much.

My thought is simply to formulate the questions. And as I do so, I may post some of my questions here.

I have one of those Bibles that has a reading from the OT, the NT, the Deuterocanonicals, and a Psalm and Proverb for each day with the precise aim of getting through the entire Bible in one year.

It's not the best translation. It is one of those Tyndale "living translations" which often paraphrases a verse, rather than aiming at scholarly accuracy.

However, the translation does have the Church's imprimatur, imprimi potest and nihil obstat, if that matters to anyone.

Where I suspect the "problem" is with translation, I will compare the texts to the Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible just to be sure the question remains.

Here is one such passages that I ran across since January 1:

Now Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of the wine, he became drunk and lay naked inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside about it. Shem and Japheth, however, took a robe, and holding it on their backs, they walked backward and covered their father's nakedness; since their faces were turned the other way, they did not see their father's nakedness. When Noah woke up from his drunkenness and learned what his youngest son had done to him, he said: "Cursed be Caanan! The lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers." He also said: "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem! Let Canaan be his slave. May God expand Japheth, so that he dwells among the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave." (Gn 9:20-26 NAB)
Here, the issue is not that God seems to command something immoral. God is not mentioned.

Yet, the narrative is set after the flood, and we have already been told than Noah is a righteous man - the only one on earth, for that matter.

This righteous man decides to punish his son by cursing his grandson. How is that fair to Canaan?

And I can't help wondering why Noah is so upset in the first place.

Noah is the one who gets himself so drunk that he passes out naked, and he grows angry because someone simply saw him in his shameful state - in a manner that seems quite accidental.

Perhaps we are to read "between the lines" that when Ham told his brothers that Dad had passed out naked, he did so in a manner that was mean spirited and intended to mock the ol' man.

But the text doesn't really say that.

Even if true, such a severe curse on a grandson and all his descendants seems quite harsh (assuming that cursing really works in some sort of seeminly magical way).

The punishment doesn't fit the crime.

What sort of father hopes inequity will infect the relationships of his children for generations to come?

The footnotes in the NAB state that we must not presume that this curse applies to "African Negroes". I agree that this is an important point to make today, since some people have suggested such things.

The footnote also suggests that what is occurring is that the Israelites sought to justify their own enslavement of the Canaanites, who also had sexual practices in their religion that the Israelites abhorred.


But it still seems a "troubling" passage to me.


Raising Compassionate Children

I thought this was pretty good for a short CNN piece....


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Pope Benedict's Message for the World Day of Peace

I don't have a whole lot of time to write any extensive commentary. Overall, I like the message - a lot!

The central argument is that peace will be established when we respect the full dignity of the human person.

As many people would expect, he states that this begins with a consistent ethic of life.

The Holy Father does criticize abortion and embryonic stem cell research as contrary to the spirit needed in working for peace.

But he ties these issues to the wider issues of poverty and social justice.

He addresses the condition of children around the globe.

He also speaks out on behalf of the full equality of women as a critical issue to establishing peace.

Though Pope Benedict probably would not agree, this is one of the reasons I see women's ordination as such an important issue.

It is extremely interesting to have a conservative Pope quoting Mahatma Gandhi to make a point about the duties inherent to the notion of human rights:

Mahatma Gandhi said wisely: "The Ganges of rights flows from the Himalaya of duties."
It is also extremely interesting to see the pope very strongly tying care and stewardship for the environment to the promotion of peace.

Pope Benedict also addresses terrorism and the proper response to it.

Perhaps the best line in the entire address is this one:
This is a point which must be clearly reaffirmed: war in God's name is never acceptable!
The italics are in the original.

I gotta run - but hopefully I have wet your appetite to look at the whole message.