Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Faith vs. Dogmatism: a personal reflection

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

- Hebrews 11: 1 (NRSV)

"I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians, they are so unlike your Christ."

- M. K. Gandhi

Recently I was put to the unpleasant expedient of having to remove two individuals from my Facebook internet social networking account. Why was this necessary? Because I am a man who has come to have a limited tolerance for the dogmatic, especially when it is taken to the point of personal disparagement in a public venue. The two in question were people with whom I had become acquainted on an evangelical Christian site concerning "apologetics" (the rational defense of faith) that I had taken an interest in, and I did not really know them personally. It had however become quickly apparent to me that these two had little interest in a lively exchange of views, but only in persuading me of the merits of their own position - and in rather un-Christ like fashion, had no qualms about using labels such as "heretic" or "apostate" in describing other Christian groups with whom they disagreed on rather disputable questions of doctrine. This experience caused me to reflect at length on a matter that has occupied my inner life for some time now - the distinction between faith and dogmatism. I heartily affirm the former, but have grown increasingly impatient with the latter as I have encountered it over the years - from others - or within my own spirit.

As I see it the basic difference is that dogmatists traffic in certainty, whereas people of authentic faith deal in hope. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews expresses it, " is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen." What this passage of scripture would seem to suggest to me is that religious faith is non-rational. Notice that I did not say "irrational" - there are very good and compelling reasons for Christian faith that commend themselves to those of us who have come to accept its claims, but none of these reasons offer conclusive proof of any sort that justifies a claim to certitude or spiritual hubris. Faith addresses itself entirely to realities that are outside the range of the empirically verifiable. What any religious tradition affirms about such things as "God," "eternal life," or "revelation" (as disclosed within a particular set of scriptures, or mediated through the ritual and practices of a community within that tradition) are amenable neither to any proof, or dis-proof, that is external to that faith-community. The only "evidence" that can prove or justify the claims of any faith - Christian or otherwise - is the personal mystical experience of that faith in those who believe in it. The best that any historical evidence could do (such as the apostolic testimony of the Four Gospels for instance) is offer compelling data that our faith might be true - and therefore reasonable. But beyond this it cannot go. To use the language of both the lawcourt and laboratory, the evidence is "inconclusive." Consequently, it would seem to me that in faithful people the recognition of this reality would engender a spirit of charity and humility. As a Christian I cannot claim to know that any of what I believe is the "truth" in any absolute sense, I can but rest in hope and expectation.

Don't get me wrong, I am a man who is in love with God, passionate about his Christianity, and have some very definite personal convictions about both the doctrines I believe and the values I try to practice. I am a member of the Episcopal Church - a denomination in the Anglican tradition - and theologically my views are largely "conservative" ones with respect to the central affirmations of this branch of the Church of Jesus Christ. When I say the Nicene Creed during the liturgical service of my parish on Sunday morning, I heartily endorse without reservation the truth and historic reality of the entire corpus of this ancient affirmation of the Christian Gospel. As I see it, authentic faith must have form and content - and doctrine provides the content, and tradition provides the form. My faith has provided for me, in the words of the song "Forever Young" that 60's era folk-singer Joan Baez sang so beautifully "...a strong foundation when the winds and changes shift."

On the other hand it is not that I would disparage reason either. Quite the contrary, where matters of a "this-worldly" nature are concerned I have long been the consummate rationalist. I am very much the sort to insist on facts, evidence, and empirical data with regard to any issue that admits itself to analysis on this basis. But I have come to see that rational methods of inquiry have met their boundary when it comes to having much to say in the area of faith. Not that I think faith and reason are incompatible (for that is yet another kind of dogmatism indulged in by the "religion" of atheism) but simply that they address themselves to very different kinds of questions. As I see it faith transcends reason, but it does not contradict it.

No one believes anything without some degree of inward personal assurance that that what s/he believes is "right." If I weren't personally convinced that Christianity were "true" or "right" in its claims, well obviously I would believe in something else. This only makes sense, doesn't it? What does not make much sense is for me to fail to recognize that other people are making exactly the same assumption regarding the truths that they believe that may be very different from mine. What also does not make much sense - especially given the values of love and charity that our faith purportedly teaches us to practice - is to behave in a patronizingly superior manner toward those of a different religion (or no religion) or even of a different denomination within the same religion. Or even worse yet - to indulge the sort of outright hate that is responsible for a good many of the profound tragedies of our human history. We could be wrong, and those we patronize could well end up being right - we just don't know. As Christians we have our faith and the "witness of the Spirit" to guide us, but not the sort of concrete absolutely verifiable evidence of "certainty" that would allow us to insist on assent to our "truths" on the part of anyone else. Why is it, I wonder, so many Christians - be they fundamentalist or evangelical Protestants or very orthodox Roman or Anglo-Catholics, indeed even those who call themselves theological "liberals" - do not seem to have the humility to recognize this?

I am certainly not innocent of the sin of spiritual pride, particularly in the years of my teens and early adulthood I too indulged the arrogance of certainty of which I am now so critical. It damaged my relationships and in fact made shipwreck of my faithful witness to the Gospel. It took a long road of hard knocks and painful experiences for me to really wake up and see what the teaching of Jesus was really all about, and I'm still learning it every day. But it is life that teaches me these lessons much more than doctrine. The older I get (and I will turn 46 as of the week of this writing) the more I recognize that our witness is not in what we say, but largely in what we do. It is not our ortho-doxy that others notice and are either impressed or repelled by - but our ortho-praxy, or the lack of it.

Those for whom Jesus had the harshest rebuke were the rigid and legalistic dogmatists of his own culture and faith-community - the Pharisees. The sort that would order the stoning to death of an adulterous woman on the street, but not even bother to ask where was the male accomplice of the adulteries for which she stands accused and condemned? "You who is without sin, be the first to cast a stone at her" is what the Gospel writer records Jesus as asking the mob - and it is as fair a question today as it was then to any who are self-satisified in their own sense of personal "holiness." Jesus impacted those who followed him much more by his works of love, mercy and compassion, than by anything he ever said or taught. It was his work of supreme self-sacrifice on the cross in suffering and giving up his life that stands as the central story of our faith and that our creeds and rituals commemorate - not some particular teaching that he propounded.

St. Francis of Assisi is supposed to have said, "We should always preach the Gospel, and sometimes we should use words." I hope to do better at following this example, and have done with dogmatism.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Bit of Exegesis in the Manner of the Eastern Fathers

This piece was written by Frank Valdez and is posted for the benefit of my blog readers and Facebook friends, JF

In the book of Genesis, Jacob struggles with the Angel of the LORD at Peniel. When the Angel of the Presence touches him his thigh is put out of joint. Yet it is at that point that he is given the name Israel because he has prevailed with God. At the end of the book of Genesis, when Israel blesses his descendants, he leans on his staff. The touch of the Divine Presence crippled Jacob so that his walk was permenantly affected; he became a cripple and walked with a limp.
It is this that made him Israel, one who prevailed with God.

There are those who are sometimes called "emotional cripples" by others. I may have had the privilege of being so labeled from time to time myself. They are people whose experience of life has broken their hearts.As a result they may not walk as well as others;i.e. they may not be as efficient, successful, fashionable and cool as many middle class Christians expect everyone to be. They may be in frequent and unacceptably visible suffering. They may not make "normal" people very comfortable. They soon get the message that they are not really wanted and stop showing up. Their disappearance may be a sign of judgement.

The Greek Fathers understood spiritual growth as deification. It is our being remade in the cruciform image of God in Christ.
Perhaps the broken, the insulted, and the injured are not the outliers of true Christianity. To be touched by the cruciform God entails heartbreak. It entails being crippled as Jacob was crippled so that he might become Israel. Perhaps it is those who keep their hearts under lock and key so that they might avoid heartbreak who have lost their way and wandered from the path of deification. Perhaps if God is determined to transform you he will inevitably break your heart and turn you into a cripple of some sort. Perhaps he already has. Perhaps nothing could be worse than for this not to happen.

Just a thought.


Monday, August 3, 2009

Global Climate Change: A reality beyond debate

"Natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures observed during the second half of the 20th century."

- The American Geophyiscal Union

"...the warming of the climate system is unequivocal...human activity has very likely been the driving force in that change over the last 50 years."

- United Nations Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
Fourth Assessment Report February 2007

Writing as a non-scientist, one of the things that I have always respected about natural science is that here at least is a field of endeavor that is committed to rigorous objectivity, and to a reasoned and methodical assessment of facts entirely without reference to popular opinion, superstition or ideology. This aloofness of the scientific community toward the blatant subjectivity inherent in fields such as politics or religion is a feature of their discipline that I must admit I am rather attracted to - and even though I am a man of faith, I am also a man of reason and therefore one to take scientific conclusions very seriously. Given the nature of their profession it is therefore rare, if not almost unheard of, to hear scientists use language such as "unequivocal" when describing scientific results. Yet in the hotly debated political football that is the issue of global warming and climate change, that is the very term used by the IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change) an international body convened by the United Nations - with a contributory membership of thousands of the worlds leading scientists in a broad range of disciplines - to assess the causes and effects of Global climate trends. In 2007 this body was awarded the Nobel Prize for its published assessment-reports which concluded that a relatively recent and accelerating global warming trend is a fact and that the cause of this is "very likely" of human origin.

It must be emphasized that the IPCC does not take the alarmist position of predicting some sort of catastrophic "extinction-class event" such as depicted in the Hollywood film The Day After Tomorrow, or anything remotely like it. Such a melodramatic scenario of global warming rapidly impacting ocean currents and triggering an ice age in a matter of days or weeks strikes even a layman like me as pure science fiction - global natural processes just don't work that way. What the IPCC reports do say, is that average global surface temperatures have increased about 0.74 degrees Centigrade and that the "linear trend" since about the late 1950's of 0.13 degrees (Centigrade) per decade is nearly twice that for the past 100 years. Data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fully affirm and substantiate these conclusions.

The UN panel report points out that this warming trend has not been globally uniform, for example the American Southeast (where I and most of my friends and family all live) has actually cooled some over the last century, but that the overall trend planet-wide, especially in the Northern Hemisphere above 40 degrees North latitude (essentially Canada, Russia and nearly all of Europe) has been a significant increase in average temperature. The 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1995, 7 of the 8 warmest since 2001. NASA satellites provide striking evidence of what is possibly the most alarming physical consequence of this warming trend, the decrease in the permanent Arctic sea-ice layer. Satellite imagery beginning from when large-scale satellite based measurements were possible in the late 70's to the present day, reveals that in a 30 year period nearly half of the North polar sea-ice layer then extant has since retreated, the most dramatic reductions having occurred since the 1990's. One serious result of ice-cap regression that not only could, but likely will, have grave consequences for the planet is that ocean levels are projected to rise anywhere from 7 to 23 inches by 2100. Worst-case scenarios - that seem increasingly probable to an overwhelming majority of earth scientists - predict flooding that would likely put many major relatively low-lying urban centers such as New York, London and Shanghai permanently under water (including I might add our own Tampa Bay metro area) within the current lifetime of some of us, and alter significantly the basic geography of the planet for the next several thousand years.

The above brief sketch of some of what is involved with climate change is an example of the information reported in a very prosaically worded technical document published by a highly respected, multi-national and strictly mainstream scientific source with no discernable political agenda or axe to grind. The reports of the IPCC also affirm the central conclusion of the world scientific community as to the primary cause of the current rapid climate change process - namely an acceleration of the so-called "Greenhouse effect" by increased concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG's) in the atmosphere.

It is important to point out that, in and of itself, the greenhouse effect is a normal and necessary natural process that has been part of planetary climate cycles since the beginning of the earth's natural history. Gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the tropospheric layer of our atmosphere permit sunlight to reach the earth while trapping some of the heat, exactly like the glass paneling of a greenhouse, inhibiting it from radiating back into space - the formation of life on the planet would in fact have been impossible absent this process. However, the problem in the modern period has been that the burning of fossil fuels (namely coal and oil) and massive deforestation have caused the concentration levels of gases such as CO2 (carbon dioxide) to increase to a point apparently unparalleled in previous history. Climate models from NOAA, NASA and the IPCC predict that if GHG's continue to increase (as a result of for example CO2 emissions from automobile exhaust - only one of several major sources of atmospheric pollutants to increase substantially during the industrial age) that the average global surface temperature could increase from 3.2 to 7.5 degrees Faranheit by the end of the century. According to the website of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "Scientists are certain that human activities are changing the composition of the atmosphere, [italics mine] and that increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases will change the planets climate. But they are not sure by how much it will change, at what rate it will change, or what the exact effects will be." A much stronger affirmation in this regard comes from the National Academies of Science which in a 2005 joint statement with the U.S. Academy of Sciences states: "The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action. It is vital that all nations identify cost-effective steps that they can take now, to contribute to substantial and long-term reduction in net global greenhouse gas emissions."[italics mine]

It seems clear that a virtual scientific consensus exists with respect to the fundamental reality of global climate change and the strong likelihood (The IPCC reports this liklihood as greater than 90%) that people are causing it. Yet, notwithstanding the growing mountain of evidence and substantiating data from every reputable source around the world, there remains a persistent and indeed intractable mindset of denial from certain quarters of the body politic. This inclination toward denial is particularly evident within the political right wing of advanced industrial states like the United States. Some politically conservative elements, often in league with some of the worst offenders in the area of private-sector industrial pollution, continue to propagate the notion that there exists a scientifically credible alternative explanation to this phenomena and its causes. In some cases this belief in a so-called alternative explanation is genuinely motivated by political ideology, which advances an elaborate conspiracy-theory sort of argument that the whole concern re human causes to climate change is an alarmist liberal plot. In other cases it seems very obviously to be driven entirely by market interests (i.e. greed - for lack of a more appropriate term) on the part of certain industries and companies who fear the costs of increased environmental public-interest regulation.

At any rate, in doing the research for this post I failed to find any scientific argument from a recognized or academically reputable source to refute the apparent overwhelming mainstream position on this question. Everything I found seemed to substantiate everythig else, confirming my suspicion that for all intents and purposes the scientific community speaks with one voice with regard to at least the central issues involving this particular issue. There may be divergence on fine points and peripheral questions, but the main themes seem to remain the same from virtually every source I located. Such competing authentically scientific explantions as I was able to find - and they were few and well outside the mainstream - were all directly associated with the very industries that are most identified with the problem, or were sponsored by antagonistic conservative political groups. A fairly conscientious attempt on my part to find the relevant information I was searching for failed to produce any alternative explanations from a credible independent researcher untainted by an obvious ideological or industry-related bias.

As a concluding point, I must stress that I approached my subject with no particular bias (that is, other than a bias in favor of a purely objective scientific argument as opposed to anything tainted by ideological considerations of either the Left or the Right) on an issue about which, until very recently, I have not been all that terribly well informed. My own politics are actually very much a "mixed bag," as my profile states, I do not fit neatly into any ideological category or label but approach issues from a fiercely independent place that is rooted in a deep skepticism with regard to all totalistic ideological constructs. As it turns out, though I once indulged a very brief flirtation with socialist politics some years ago, I am today deeply critical of socialism, seeing in it an incipient tendency toward totalitarianism (and I am a confirmed anti-totalitarian) and in fact endorse a free-market system as likely the only viable rational alternative to state-socialism in modern economics. In brief, though I have reservations about capitalism I basically accept it - so long as it is subject to reasonable regulation commensurate with the aggregate public interest, and promotes responsible corporate citizenship with respect to the environment. So when it comes to the question of global warming or climate change, I have no explicitly "pro-Left" agenda to advance, I am interested only in facts and empirical evidence. To date the conservatives who would disagree with the position heretofore advanced have failed to supply me with any that I find particularly compelling.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Christians & War: A Personal Statement

Happy 4th of July! This may be controversial with some but given the celebration of the patriotic Independence Day holiday and in keeping with the democratic tradition that dissent is patriotism in a genuinely "free" society, I have elected to moderately revise and re-publish my post from last month (and delete from June) regarding "Christians and War." I have also re-posted from June "Church & State: The Bible is not a Political Manifesto" of which this post on war is a necessary follow-up, the two should probably be read together.

"He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree."

- From The Magnificat of Mary the Mother of Christ

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."

- Jesus of Nazareth

I should probably begin this by making it very clear, for reasons already argued at length, that I remain firmly committed to both the separation of Church and State, and to the principle that a Christians status as a member of the Church does not abrogate his/her biblical mandate (see Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 2) to submit to the authority of the civil state and the rule of law it provides. However, as has also been argued, the Apostle Peter's remarks recorded in Acts 5: 29 - that "we ought to obey God rather then men" - when taken in their proper context, remind us that there do arise conditions and circumstances that legitimate peaceable Christian civil disobedience to the State. It was suggested in this argument that where a clear "conflict of interest" exists between the requirements of one's faith, and the obligations of state-citizenship, that one's faith must then take priority. Acknowledging that the experience of others has perhaps been different, in my personal experience as a citizen of this American republic, no serious conflict of interest in this regard has ever arisen - except with regard to this question of war and participation in war.

The difficulty is that even in a liberal republic like the United States, the relationship between "citizenship" and participation in warfare, or support for such participation, is no small question. There are many who would argue that one cannot rightfully assume the rights and privileges of citizenship in a State or a Republic, without also being willing to participate in, or at least actively endorse, its military defense. Even some in my own family or among my closest friends, would strenuously defend this point of view (in fact my best friend, also an ew blog member, is a former U.S. Marine - there are no "ex-Marines" - enough said). Some historians of the early Church have noted that a major cause of the persecutions early Christians suffered at the hands of the Roman Empire were directly the result of the widespread refusal of Christian males - even those who were themselves citus romanus "citizen of Rome" at that time a privilege given only to a select class - to serve in Caesar's legions.

The classical, indeed practically canonical, position of the Church on this question has historically been the "just war" tradition attributed to the teaching of St. Augustine. For those who may be unfamiliar with Church history, Augustine was a fourth century Bishop and Church Father whose interpretation of Scripture and Church tradition has had a profound influence on Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, down to the present day. The Augustinian tradition does permit Christian participation in war or military service, but only under very rigidly and narrowly defined conditions. In order for a war to be regarded as "just" it must be strictly one fought in defense against invasion by an aggressive enemy - wars of conquest, "preventive" warfare, or wars fought to protect so-called national "interests" are therefore absolutely excluded from this category of a "just" war. Such a war may only be waged as a last resort when all other diplomatic options available have been exhausted, or when it seems quite clear that such options would be of no avail to forestall enemy aggression. A Christian warrior or knight who participates in such a conflict may engage only enemy combatants and must take as much care as possible to avoid civilian casualties. Moreover, rapine or pillage among the non-combatant population is absolutely proscribed.

There is of course also a pacifist or "non-resistance" tradition that has also been very influential, and has its roots primarily in the 16th century Anabaptist movement. This tradition takes several Gospel passages classically interpreted as relating to personal retribution very literally and expands their application to any and all use of force. On the opposite side of the question - with the rise of nationalism within the absolute monarchies of medieval and renaissance Europe there emerged a "Church-militant" tradition that distorted the older Augustinian just war tests and actually supported aggressive militarism on behalf of "God and King." A modern republican "made-in-America" variant of this latter tradition can be discerned among many adherents of the evangelical Religious Right, which attempts to establish nationalistic patriotism as virtually synonomous with Christian discipleship.

I am in agreement with many Christian thinkers who wholeheartedly reject this latter "Christian nation" perspective as heretically false to classical Christian teaching as it conflates the Church directly with the secular Nation-State. Christians are commanded to submit to and obey the civil government and its laws, we are however strictly prohibited from what amounts to deification of the State. It is for this reason some Christians refuse to say the pledge of allegiance to the flag, or are opposed, as am I, to the American flag being displayed on a Church alter or for that matter even within the nave or sanctuary of a church or chapel. Personally, I will stand for the cross when it is carried in processional, for it represents the Monarchy of Christ, but I will generally refuse to do so for the flag if it is also so carried. In my view, disciples of Christ should stand opposed to any importation of the idolatry of nationalism and the heresy of civil religion into the sacred precincts of the Church.

Quite a few contemporary Christian thinkers - most notably the late Thomas Merton (d.1968) - have reached the conclusion that the nature and character of modern warfare is such that the just war tradition, while perhaps valid in the past, is no longer viable for Christians, and pacifism the only remaining option. For myself, I do find this argument compelling and persuasive, but as yet remain morally unresolved concerning it. For instance, I am less than convinced that the Nazis could have been stopped with anything other than military force. Even the widely revered German minister and theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer, a convinced pacifist, felt it necessary to play a participatory role in the "Valkyrie" assassination conspiracy against Adolph Hitler - and died in a concentration camp in consequence thereof.

What does seem clear is that, for the possible exception of World War II, even the most cursory review of the conflicts that the United States has engaged in over the course of the past century, indicate that not one of them has even remotely satisfied the just war standard. Certainly not the Vietnam conflict, nor the current mess in Iraq, could be said to be consistent with the Augustinian criteria. [See my post from June "The Ghost of Quagmires Past" which offers some comparison/contrast of these conflicts] In neither case was the American homeland under imminent threat of invasion, and in both cases so-called "collateral damage" to civilian non-combatants (including children) was normative and regarded as an acceptable risk by U.S. government policy-makers. Indeed, independent of the religious standards of the Christian faithful, it is worth noting that a case could be made that both conflicts were waged unlawfully in that our own Constitution requires a formal declaration of war by Congress before engaging in hostilities. The last time an American President actually asked Congress for such a declaration was in December, 1941 - after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the Second World War. Every conflict since then has been waged largely by executive order and Congressional rubber stamping of war-spending resolutions in the absence of any formal declaration.

Notwithstanding my arguments elsewhere that Christian religious standards of belief and practice have no direct part in civil state policy, it does remain a question as to whether an individual Christian can in good conscience cooperate with the State in this area of participation of non-just wars. I would argue that here is a clear case where the Christian is in fact obligated to resist the State and engage in the peaceable civil disobedience sanctioned in Acts 5. Naturally, such resistance must be conducted in a manner that is respectful of the rule of law by accepting the legal consequences often inherent in acts against the civil authority. It must also be non-violent in character, thereby carrying moral authority and bearing a faithful witness against the unlawful violence of the State

Now I am compelled to add that in spite of the above statement of personal conviction in this area - I have for some years now largely parted company from the local and national anti-war movement in which I was once quite active. My reasons were in large part due to the fact that the secular "peace" movement does not in fact seem to function as authentically advancing the cause of peace. In my experience, contemporary "anti-war" organizations and movements have become far too co-opted by ideological agendas that are inimical to the standards of authentic Christian discipleship. Far too often for example, a march or rally presumably against war, becomes instead a march or rally covertly in favor of some foreign nationalistic agenda. Others of these protest events turn into anarchist diatribes against the State, or even advocacy of so-called "anti-imperialist" revolutionary militancy. This kind of peace movement I have no interest in or use for (nor does this sort of protest rally approach strike me as particularly effective - it didn't really work in the 60's when it was new and novel and the media covered it, it certainly doesn't work today), although I have watched some of my activist friends get taken in by it.

It would seem that Christian open witness against war is best practiced by personal civil disobedience, if and when such becomes necessary due to extraordinary circumstances. An example would be registration as a conscientious objector, or simple refusal of military service if called upon to serve - and as alluded to above, patient acceptance of the legal consequences that may come with this refusal. Naturally this would be most effective if the Church as a whole would line up behind such a one's refusal creating an unassailable "community of resistance" but the present state of things in the American Church would seem to make this a utopian expectation.

Another example would be far simpler, and yet more difficult: The daily practice and discipline of following Christ's injunction to actually "love your enemies... and pray for those who despitefully use you."


Friday, June 12, 2009

The Ghost of Quagmires Past

It has occurred to me that lately, in the face of so much else going on here at home, the on-going conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has been kicked to secondary status in media coverage like an unpleasant afterthought - yet it continues to drag on, and the bodies of American servicemen and women continue to pile up, and the permanently wounded continue to come home forever changed. So I think it's time to take a look at this some more. To that end I am reprinting here both my Memorial Day Post and C.J.'s reply "A Corrupt Bargain" immediately below it all as a single post (C.J. is a graduate student in International Relations at USF currently working on his Masters thesis on Foreign Policy in the Middle East). Anyone please feel free to comment on this, just click on the comments link immediately below the post. JF


"All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride."

- from the Antigone of Sophocles

During this years Memorial Day weekend there was a small but rather ideologically eclectic gathering of friends at the home of my aunt where I currently live, and one of the things we did at this gathering - in honor of the holiday - was to offer a sunset toast to the fallen in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which number has reached about 6,000 American dead and some 40,000 wounded. The totals among the local population are of course, as always, significantly higher. While these numbers do not quite approach the staggering statistics of the conflict in Vietnam (a conflict that occupied the U.S. for almost exactly the same length of time), the other parallels of our continuing struggle with the insurgency there, and our continuing stubborn failure to learn from the same old mistakes are quite striking to me.

In the midst of all the current consternation over the economy we are hearing a little less than we had about the continuing and yet equally critical crises in our foreign policy - and of late I have felt personally compelled to re-visit these questions during my private times of reflection and study. I am currently re-reading a book by the late Robert Kennedy - a man who remains one of my personally most admired heroes - published over 40 years ago entitled To Seek a Newer World. The book was first released in the paperback form in which I am reading it in March of 1968, the same month when "Bobby" Kennedy rather suddenly announced his candidacy as a Democratic rival to the incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. As we know from history Senator Kennedy would be tragically assassinated in the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles shortly after his victory announcement in the California primary in June of that same year, and later that summer the Democratic convention in Chicago would erupt in violence over the Vietnam divide that would hand the Presidency to Republican Richard Nixon.

In the aforementioned book the final chapter - the one on Vietnam - was revised for the paperback edition (a hardback edition had already been published in the fall of 1967) in the context of the Tet "lunar" New Year offensive of January 1968, that confirmed the opinion of an already rapidly gowing number of thinking Americans that the war was an unwinnable lost cause. I have selected some brief excerpts from this book that are especially telling in the parallels that can be drawn to our current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan (an undoubtedly soon to be the case in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East) and I wanted to share them as my "Memorial Day" remarks:

"...This does not mean that military force is ineffective or unnecessary. The most loyal of citizens may deny allegiance to his government if insurgent terror is not prevented and overcome by government force. The most developed and unified societies often find force necessary to defend themselves against those who reject peaceful political processes. Force is the last resort of all states and societies, and we ourselves have used it to repress internal disorder several times in this decade, Military force can and must be a part of any effort to combat insurgency. Citizens and governments need protection, a sheild behind which reforms can be carried out. But no primarily military effort can be successful against a deeply rooted insurgency with any degree of popular support. Still less can any amount of force redeem political failures, or win the allegiance of the people to a government that does not earn that loyalty...[italics JF] Where the needs and grievances of a people, whether for social change or national independence, begin to be met by the political process, then insurgency loses its popular character and becomes a police problem...

Many critics of the war have decried the damage to civilians, and our lack of sufficient effort to assist the victims. No one can fail to be shocked by the photographs we see every day, of the children burned or drowned or bombed. The wars supporters counter with a demand that the critics also condmen the Viet Cong. Certainly their terrorism is as personally and inhumanly brutal as anything in the war: attacking, torturing, and killing not only village officials and civil guards, but teachers and nurses and ordinary citizens, and the wives and children of those in whom they wished to strike fear. In condemning that moral blindness that reproaches only the United States, while refusing to recognize the terrorism of the Viet Cong, the wars supporters are unimpeachably right. There are no moral excuses to be made for the brutal terror of the Viet Cong. But the morality of our actions will not be elevated by the sins of others. Moreover, their terrorism has not prevented the Viet Cong from convincing large numbers of South Vietnamese to work and fight and sacrifice for their cause.

There are three possible routes before us: the pursuit of military victory, a negotiated settlement, or withdrawal.

Withdrawal is now impossible. The overwhelming fact of American intervention has created its own reality...Moreover tens of thousands of individual Vietnamese have staked their lives and fortunes on our presence and protection...These people, their old ways and strengths submerged by the American presence, cannot suddenly be abandoned to the forcible conquest of a minority....and the effect of a withdrawal on our position around the world. ...these are the arguments against withdrawal. But these arguments do not in any way support a policy of continuing the present course of the conflict, or continuing it at its present level, or in the same way. Still less do they support a search for nonexistent ways to military victory. The war has estranged and alienated us from our closest friends in the Western Alliance. [italics JF] Not one has seen fit to aid us in Vietnam... In the Congress, liberals and conservatives alike have firmly stated their conviction that the United States should never again engage in an effort like Vietnam that "wars of national liberation cannot succeed."

The third alternative is a negotiated settlement - as we have known for more than two years, the only satisfactory solution to the war. This course is our stated government policy. This is the course that I favor, and that I believe is in the best interests of this country. Only negotiations could allow us to end the fighting without precipitate withdrawal. A negotiated settlement must be less than a victory for either side. Both sides must come to any discussion with at least one basic condition, one irreducible demand, one point they will not yeild. For the United States it must be that we will not abandon South Vietnam to forcible takeover by a minority. For our adversaries it must be that they will not accept a settlement that leaves in the South a hostile government. ...For either side to yield its minimum conditions would be in fact to surrender. No war has ever demanded more bravery from our people and our government - not just bravery under fire or the bravery to make sacrifices - but the bravery to discard the comfort of illusion - to do away with false hopes and alluring promises. Reality is grim and painful. But it is only a remote echo of the anguish toward which a policy founded on illusion is surely taking us. This is a great nation and a strong people. Any who seek to comfort rather than speak plainly, reassure rather than instruct, promise satisfaction rather than reveal frustration - they deny that greatness and drain that strength. For today as it was in the beginning, it is the truth that makes us free."

From To Seek a Newer World by Robert F. Kennedy
pp. 171-229 (Bantam 1968)

To the fallen,



"A CORRUPT BARGAIN" - C.J.'s reply


As a Master's candidate in International Relations (IR), who is currently writing his thesis on American foreign policy and Middle Eastern contingencies, I feel that I can speak with some degree of authority on this subject. The main questions presented here are how to deal with the ramifications of entering an unnecessary and morally questionable war in Iraq. How did we get here? How do we proceed? And what, if any, are our exit strategies? I use the plural because nothing ever goes according to plan in war and this scenario offers particular intricacies where our interests are concerned. Thus, we're gonna need at least several exit strategies.

The Realist school of thought underscores the Bush Doctrine of preemption. The Liberal school of thought highlights the focus of the Clinton [Doctrine] administration's emphasis on trade. These two doctrines are not always at odds but their synthesis poses several problems. We got into Iraq based on preconceived notions of threat levels based on faulty intelligence. We have proceeded our "mission" there based on reducing that "threat" while trying to uphold a block of trading partners throughout the Middle East. And our exit strategies, based mainly on the Powell Doctrine have been largely ignored. More's the pity.

But the fact is that Iraq was, and continues to be, a morally corrupt bargain between the two schools of thought most considered in IR. If there are, as you say, " three possible routes before us: the pursuit of military victory, a negotiated settlement, or withdrawal" then you have been thorough in your consideration. But this is no Vietnam. Victory in an insurgency, against a foe that employs asymmetric warfare is an impossibility (as we learned in Vietnam). Withdrawal is also impossible at this point . . . in the parlance of Texas hold 'em; we're all in. But negotiated settlement may be an option. Thus, unlike Vietnam, we may have a valid third option. "A negotiated settlement must be less than a victory for either side. Both sides must come to any discussion with at least one basic condition, one irreducible demand, one point they will not yield." And this is exactly the problem in Iraq today. There is no carrot big enough nor stick long enough to affect a change in a part of the world who sees hastening the reign of chaos in the world as a harbinger of their good fortune [call it an end of days mind set]. At leaast the Vietnamese met us in Paris every time we bombed the shit out of them. So realism is the surest answer but the one I least respect. Thucydides discusses this aspect of IR in more detail in his Minoan dialogue but suffice it to say that you can't drag a terrorist to the negotiating table when he feels confident that he/she is doing Allah's work.

But, as Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural speech . . . "the quiet dogmas of the past are insufficient to the stormy present." And therein, my friend, lies the dilemma.


Sunday, May 31, 2009

Jennifer Porter hit and run case: A letter to the editor

This letter - the latest of many I have sent on this particular case that many know is of special interest to me - was sent to the St. Petersburg Times on Friday, May 22, it was not published by the paper as most of the others had been. It is the very first post on this new blog:

Re: Jennifer Porter denied probation reduction Fri. May 22

I have to say that I am disappointed with the shortsightedness of the court in denying Jennifer Porter's request for an early end to her probation, but not surprised. It is too often the case these days that judicial decision-making is impacted more by what is politically expedient than juridicially appropriate. Had this not been such a high profile case surrounded by an absurd panoply of media sensationalism I am convinced this petition would have been granted as a matter of routine.

As Porters attorney adduced in court, she has complied with all the terms of her probation in a manner far exceeding the usual expectations. Indeed, it is a well known fact that many felons on probation fail to comply with such terms with apalling frequency. Jennifer Porter on the other hand has been a model citizen in the three plus years since her conviction. It is in fact the case that she was a model citizen prior to the tragic accident that killed two children and subjected her to the very public shame of criminal liability. At her sentencing hearing, which this reader attended, it was compellingly demonstrated that it was an acute stress reaction (actually quite common in situations of high trauma - like fatal automobile accidents) that led to her fleeing the scene, and not a malicious intention to do wrong.

I am sorry for Lisa Wilkins and the loss she has suffered - but now I think that Jennifer too has suffered enough for the events of March 31, 2004. Let's let it go!

John Feeney, Pinellas Park