Sunday, March 30, 2008

Senator Wyden on Trashing People's Privacy Rights


As I’ve said a number of times, my most reliable source on FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) is Joan McCarter (McJoan) of Daily Kos. Today,
she wrote about her interview last week with Senator Ron Wyden, senior senator from Oregon and a member of the Intelligence Committee. He was one of only ten senators who voted against the renewal of the Patriot Act in 2006, citing concerns about privacy protections. I thought you would want to see her interview. (The bold highlighting is mine.)

Q: We had so many revelations of overstepping by this administration on intelligence issues over just the past few months, where are we at now in Congress?

Wyden: The way I characterize it is that I think that this administration basically is allowing a culture that says violating the privacy rights of law-abiding people isn’t that big a deal. That’s what it is. Literally, if you look at this administration running through all of these issues—oversight board, Operation Total Information Awareness—all of it; they’ve basically allowed a culture to develop that says trashing people’s privacy rights isn’t that big a deal. And when they’re caught they say, oh my goodness, well we’d better get it corrected, but if they cared more about the rights of law-abiding people, we wouldn’t have one example after another. [With the passport snooping revelations] . . . you can literally look and say once again this administration is asleep on the privacy issue.

Q: Will all these revelations on intelligence give the Senate pause on telecom immunity?

Wyden: We ought to start by saying that the real issue here is why won’t the Bush administration take yes for an answer on FISA? They came to us and said we need to modernize the law. The law hadn’t kept up with the times since the 1970s and people like myself and Senator Feingold and others said ok, that’s a valid point. We’re going to work with you to modernize the law. And then there were all the issues, you know there will be a modest number of people who’d be swept up in the various programs and what would be done to protect them? And it was clear that we had a lot of concerns on that, but they talked about minimization procedures, you know procedures to try to hold down the number of cases and a lot of swallowed hard and said, ok, we’re willing to work with that, too. But when they did two other things, one, went after total retroactive immunity, and two, basically tried to sweep judicial oversight by the boards, that’s when we said that’s too much. Now you won’t take yes for an answer, and we said we’re not going to do it. What the House of Representatives is trying to do is a more judicious approach that’s more sensitive to privacy rights and so it’s fine. Without getting into details, we’re going to give phone companies the chance to make their case but we’re not going to be throwing retroactive immunity out there.

Q Will the House's solution on allowing the cases to go forward fly with the Senate?

Wyden: There are a number of Senators who are going to look at this and I hope that, again, as people look at case after case after case where the administration has not been sensitive to privacy rights that this will strengthen our hand. What the House is trying to show is, all right, we’re going to be sensitive to the concerns of the phone companies, but we’re not going to say that after five years of the administration saying a program is legal, and then there are all these lawsuits filed that we’re going to just take care of it with retroactive immunity. . . . Let’s stick with what Mike McConnell said in open session. . . . Mike McConnell said, before all the politics began, Mike McConnell said that intelligence gathering wouldn’t be jeopardized by the lapse in the law. . . . About every week the president has a news conference and says that western civilization is going to end without retroactive immunity despite the fact that Mike McConnell came to the committee, before the politics started, [and said intelligence gathering wouldn't be jeopardized.] They continue to have others do their work for them. A variety of interest groups and sympathetic people in the media are constantly clobbering the House bill, but what’s interesting is that even those who are critical of the House bill on the right, they can’t say that this is unfair treatment of the phone companies. . . .

Q: You've spent the recess back in Oregon. What have people in town meetings been saying?

Wyden: Americans understand that the founding fathers set up our unique and wonderful system as a kind of Constitutional teeter-totter. On one side you would have collective security, and on the other side you would have individual liberty. The teeter-totter would be right there in balance. . . . As you listen to people, and I just had town meetings all over eastern Oregon where people are asking about privacy issues, too . . . people think that under this administration the Constitutional teeter-totter is imbalanced, it’s out of whack. That kind of balancing act that allowed us to have both collective security and individual liberties because of this administration is threatening both.

Q: You are responsible for killing Operation Total Information Awareness when they tried to get it passed as a full-fledged program. Now we know it different parts have been implemented despite the Congressional ban by the Pentagon anyway. Any word yet on what Congress might do about that?

Wyden: The article came out right before the break, so I can’t tell you. . . . I think both in the Congress and in the country that there’s a real hunger to get back to this issue. I asked about Operation Total Information Awareness in public, about whether, you know, several years afterwards . . . about whether they were trying to bring it back, and they said we're not going to answer you in public session. Then we went into closed session and I asked it again, and I think that the American people have a right to that answer in public and there ought to be a public debate about whether there's an effort to bring this back. I obviously can't answer what was said in classified session, but I think the answer when I posed to them in public, I think there needs to be a debate about that....

All of it, coming as a backdrop to FISA coming back, passports, national security letters . . . . The reality is, this is a tool to get lots of people's personal records and they're increasing. . . . There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle but I come away saying that if anything, as people look at all the technology and they look at how fast society moves, they're asking more and more are my rights going to get trampled in the process. That protecting privacy and having the security and safety of your community are not mutually exclusive. That's what the Bush administration wants to do more than anything else, they want to tell people it's one or the other—you can have your security or you can have your liberty.

The
Harvard Political Review called Ron Wyden “the Senate’s Designated Driver.” The people of Oregon have a right to take pride in him. I rest easier at night knowing he is in the Senate. In his understated and rational way, he is a strong voice against this administration’s threat to liberty in this country. Thank you, Senator Wyden.

And thank you, McJoan, for the interview.

- Milo




Spring Is Coming


The inch or two of snow that fell during the night is melting. We keep saying that spring can’t be far away. The lilacs are heavy with buds ready to explode. Even as I see the snow falling outside, the sun is shinning and I know that spring is coming.

There are at least two reasons for memorial services. One is to grieve the loss and celebrate the life of a friend or loved one. The other is a ritual line in the sand of grief to say that it is now time to move on. Yesterday’s service for
Lloyd did both of those things. The church was filled to capacity with standing room only. It was a testimony to how many different segments of society that this man touched. But we left the church knowing that it was time to move on with our lives, but carrying with us the memories and gifts Lloyd left with us.

When I started the fire out in the shop this morning to take the chill off for the puppies Connie is fostering, Lloyd was there. To lay the fire in the stove I sat on the stool that he made—a stool equally useful for support while throwing clay on the wheel as well as for sitting in front of the stove. The fire seemed reluctant and so I tried the first of a sack of kerosene sticks that Lloyd made for just such purposes. As the stick quickly ignited and encouraged the struggling fire around it, I was once again thankful for this good friend, who though dead was present with his fire stick to help me get a warm fire going.

Even when the fire sticks are gone, all of the things he made or repaired around here—so well made that they will doubtless outlast me—will continue to ignite memories of this good man.

But now it is time to move on. While death and grieving are a part of life, preoccupation with them is sickness. We can’t do anything about what has passed and do not know what tomorrow will bring. All we have is the present; that’s why it is called a “gift.” I’ll try to treasure that gift, as I know Lloyd did, and celebrate the time I have with friends and loved ones.



- Milo




Wednesday, March 26, 2008

An Emotional Roller Coaster of Hope and Pessimism

Maybe it is because my good friend died night before last and maybe my sadness is in part because his death is a reminder of my own mortality, but I find myself on an emotional rollercoaster with few glimpses of hope at the top and too much pessimism on the bottom.

Even though Saint Augustine said that “Hope” had two lovely daughters, one named “Anger” and the other “Courage,” he didn’t say anything about what might be two not so lovely cousins named “pessimism” and “cynicism.” So I have to assume that what I am feeling today is not an expression of “hope.”

I see the two Democratic candidates locked in a struggle that is the outcome of the party’s rules. According to the rules, the race is not over until one has a majority of the delegates, no matter what kind or where they reside.

Clinton gets into the Jeremiah Wright controversy by saying that she doesn’t have a choice about who her family is but she does about her pastor and that she would have walked away from Wright. Obama says it not that simple and he’s right, but it will be one of the big weapons used against him in the general election. Obama picks up on Clinton’s false report about being under sniper fire. Obama is right to call attention to it because it calls into question the “experience” factor that is the hallmark of the Clinton campaign, but it is only small arms fire now compared to the Republican artillery barrage it will be in the fall if Clinton is the candidate.

Please understand, I do not equate the two issues. In the case of Clinton we have deliberate fabrication to pad her “experience” resume. In the case of Obama he has made a serious and not fabricated effort to address the issue of race and, in my view anyway, has done it in a way that can only help our country. What I fear is that the fight between the two candidates can only help John McCain. I would like to believe Tom Brokaw’s assurances that the bitterness of intra-party fighting in the primaries does not have a long shelf-life when it comes to the fall campaign.

I see a Republican candidate who is either having “senior moments” of confusion in his several time identification of Al-Qaeda and Iran, only to be corrected by his sidekick Joe Lieberman, or is actually reflecting a connection that is forged in his mind, like that of the current administrations linking Al-Qaeda and Iraq before the war. I’m not sure which worries me more.

There is an upside to the current Democratic blood-letting, I am told:
Figures released by Pennsylvania's Department of State on Monday night showed that Democrats have topped 4 million registered voters, the first time either party in the state has crossed that threshold. Democrats have added 161,000 to their rolls, a gain of about 4 percent; Republican registration has dipped about 1 percent, to 3.2 million.

That is consistent with the pattern since the beginning of the year: Democratic turnout in primaries and caucuses has topped Republican turnout, often by huge differences.

That is an up side! I just hope it won’t be undone.

And then, of course, there is the war. I participated in a conversation yesterday with thirteen others who are opposed to the war in Iraq. We discussed a variety of motivations for the invasion—the threat of WMDs, removing a tyrant, establishing a democracy, protecting a source of oil, seizing an opportunity to create a permanent military base to insure imagined U.S. hegemony in the world, revenge for Hussein’s attempt to assassinate the President’s father, and others. While we agreed that the administration had knowingly misled the country about the reason for the invasion, those of us in the conversation were not sure that even now we know the reason.

Does the reason why the administration deliberately chose to ignore international law and launch the invasion make any difference now? Some of us said that it did, but others cautioned that preoccupation with that now may distract us from critically thinking about how we get out. In addition, there is still the worry about how we condemn the war without adding to the already heavy burden being borne by the soldiers, their families, and their loved ones.

Where do we draw the line of responsibility for the war after Cheney, Bush, and Rumsfield? What of the other cabinet members who were circumvented but continued to serve in the administration? What of the career service people who knew that there was no connection between Al-Qaeda and Iraq but continued to serve? What of Congress who approved the war and who has been as yet unwilling to cut off the funds for it? What of the media who appeared to be willing handmaidens of the administration’s propaganda? What of us, the American public, who have as yet failed to mount a significant anti-war effort? I do not say this to excuse what I regard as the impeachable offences of the leadership of the current administration, but rather to remind myself that few of us come to the war at this point in time without our own complicities, our failures for what we have done and what we have left undone.

As we sat at table yesterday we asked what we, as a small group of citizens out here on the high desert, should be doing to end the war? We are critical of the politicians who put their finger up to test the wind of public opinion and we wondered what we could do to “change the wind.” If we can’t change the wind, what can we do? Be informed, write letters, publish blogs, make telephone calls, visit our elected representatives with our concerns on the multitude of issues that relate to the war? Of course! Do not stay silent in the face of disagreement with family and friends? Agreed! But what more must we do? No one mentioned personal participation in nonviolent actions to protest the war. Are we not at that point yet? Will we ever be? If not us, then who?

Intellectual advocacy for one or another of the ways to get out of the war must—or so it seems to me—be accompanied with the willingness for personal sacrifice to make it happen. Neither pessimism nor cynicism will do anything but allow us to wallow in self-pity. If we are to be the people of “Hope” that presidential candidate Obama has challenged us to be, then we need to embrace not one but both of “Hope’s lovely daughters:” “Anger” at what is that must not be, and “Courage” so that what must be will be. Some of us are pretty good at the “anger,” but I’m not sure about the “courage.”

What are you doing to end the war?

- Milo



Monday, March 24, 2008

THE DEFINITION OF A FRIEND

I’ve just come from the hospital where I said goodbye to an old friend. He’s not dead yet but the brain-bleed he suffered this afternoon is inoperable and so he is being given “comfort care.”

We celebrated Lloyd’s eightieth birthday a couple of years ago, but until a slight stroke a few months ago, he could outwork a good worker half his age. If it could be made from wood, Lloyd could make it. After a lifetime of working with wood, he lost half a finger to a power saw. “You’re never too old to make a mistake,” he would grin and hold up his finger.

Lloyd knew that I was as unhandy making things as he was able. On the way home from the hospital tonight Connie and I tried to recount all of the projects he had done for us over the years and we lost count. He and some other buddies built a garden arbor gate that became the new entrance to our home. When I told him I was going to tear down an old shed in the back and build a new one, he looked at it and said that it was sound structurally and that I should just put a new roof and siding on it. We called it the “Putting Lipstick on a Hog” project. The day we finished it, Lloyd brought a wooden cutout of a pig with red lips. We nailed it up on the now good-looking building. When I retired, he and another friend built two beautiful Adirondack chairs for our veranda.

We also became fishing buddies—or the “old goats” as we called ourselves. One time when four of us were out on Lake Billy Chinook we unloaded two traps of crayfish (or “crawdads” as we used to call them). On the way into the dock, we realized that none of us knew how to prepare them. Lloyd said that his wife, Jean, would know what to do, but he suggested that I call and ask her. As we came up out of the canyon and got back in range, I called. She said she had never done them, but she would find out. She was as “can do” as her husband. They took the hundreds of crayfish we had and processed them. A few days later when we had a fish fry, Jean had made a crawfish étouffée that would have been the envy of the best Cajun cooks.

Just last week we talked of how he was figuring out some kind of fishing rig that would enable him to fish for kokanee in a few weeks. He had an old auto steering knob from the 1950s (remember those?) and he had mounted it on a reel that would enable him to use his hand still lame from the stroke. You can bet that it would have worked too.

We won’t be fishing together anymore, but when I think of what it means to have a friend, I see Lloyd’s face.
- Milo


Sunday, March 23, 2008

THE EASTER STORY YOUR MOTHER DIDN'T TELL YOU

I don’t know what you learned from your parents about the Easter story that is at the center of Christianity’s “highest holy day,” but I’ll wager that it was probably not the one you are about to read. It might prompt an “Oh yes, that’s the Easter story I learned,” but I doubt that it will.

On Good Friday, the enemies of Jesus must have thought that it was over. “One less Jewish rebel,” the political authorities might have congratulated themselves. “One more blasphemer, Sabbath violator, friend of tax collectors and sinners dead,” the religious leaders might have comforted themselves. “One less one-world race mixer,” the racial purists might have sighed. With the death of Jesus, they thought it was over.

Even Jesus’ friends and disciples thought it was over. By the time of the crucifixion on Good Friday, the Gospel of Mark says that the disciples had “all forsaken him and fled.” (Mark 14:50) According to the Gospel of John they went into hiding, fearing for their lives. (John 20: 19ff.) They thought it was over. All the Easter accounts in the Gospels have differences, yet each is consistent on this point: Mary Magdalene, perhaps Jesus’ best friend, is always first to reach the tomb. Mary is one of the followers most reluctant to give up Jesus. She went to the tomb early on Sunday morning to grieve. Even Mary thought it was over. When she saw the empty tomb she just assumed that someone had taken Jesus’ body away. When she saw Jesus standing there in the garden, she didn’t recognize him. After all, she thought it was over. But then Jesus called Mary by name. Only then did she know that it really wasn’t over.

Of course, we moderns are skeptical. We want to see for ourselves the empty tomb. We want assurance and certainty that the women were not telling an “idle tale,” or having a delusion brought on by the trauma of the death of their beloved friend.

We can’t rediscover the empty tomb, but we might want to look at Jesus’ closest friends and see what they found. Over the next days Jesus’ followers did see him. The scripture honestly reports that they did not all see him in the same way. Some have him alive and people holding on to his feet. One has a disciple touching his hands and side. Another has him eating fish for breakfast. But in one text Jesus’ cautioned his followers not to touch him. Then there are other texts that have him walking through walls into locked rooms. One account says that in the days after the resurrection some of his followers recognized him but others didn’t. Some were sure of what they saw; others weren’t. But within a matter of weeks, what they were all certain of was that their friend and teacher Jesus, who had been dead, was alive and somehow present with them. Their confidence that Jesus was alive was so real and so powerful that within thirty short years there would be Christian communities all over the Roman Empire, as far away as Britain to the west and perhaps as far as India to the east, a sociological phenomenon almost as incomprehensible as someone dead being made alive again.

It wasn’t over! It isn’t over! What’s changed? Jesus’ life and ministry was not just a candle that burned brightly for a few years and was forever extinguished. For all the reasons why Jesus was killed, if he somehow lives, it means there is hope. People who are oppressed and abused have hope. People who have been excluded from God’s love by the religiosity of self-appointed gatekeepers of God’s grace have hope. People, no matter their faith or creed, have hope. People who are alienated from God, separated from God by their own willful actions, have hope —Jesus lives and God still stands on the front porch looking down the road longing for our return home. Because Jesus lives, we all have hope.

In the earliest centuries of the Church when according to Roman law it was illegal to be Christian, there was a tradition observed in some places when new Christians were baptized as the sun began to rise on Easter morning. The assembled would face east toward Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead. Then, they would turn west toward Rome and spit, a symbolic rejection of the power of mighty Rome.

In
the first of his “Hinges of History” series in which he tells the incomparable story of St. Patrick, Thomas Cahill concludes by saying,
Perhaps history is always divided into Romans and Catholics—or, better, catholics. The Romans are the rich and powerful who run things their way and must always accrue more because the instinctively believe that there will never be enough to go around; the catholics, as their name implies, are universalists who instinctively believe that all humanity makes one family, that every human being is an equal child of God, and that God will provide. The twenty-first century, prophesied Malraux, will be spiritual or it will not be. If our civilization is to be saved—forget about our civilization, which, as Patrick would say, may pass “in a moment like a cloud of smoke that is scattered by the wind”—if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.

Even if this isn’t the Easter story your mother told you, maybe it will be the story you will tell to your children and grandchildren. I hope so. Happy Easter!


- Milo




Saturday, March 22, 2008

TODAY'S ELECTIONS IN TAIWAN

Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou won the presidential election in Taiwan and the two referendums on seeking membership in the United Nations failed.

What does the presidential victory for the KMT and the defeat of the referendums mean? So
complex is the history leading up to this day, only a fool would try to answer this question now. That, of course, does not stop us from wondering. In a story posted a couple of hours ago as the results were announced in Taipei, Keith Bradsher wrote this:
Taiwan elected on Saturday its first president who had campaigned for closer economic relations with Beijing, paving the way for a considerable lessening of tensions in one of Asia’s oldest flashpoints.

Ma Ying-jeou, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former Taipei mayor from the Nationalist Party, won by a convincing margin. He prevailed despite a last-minute effort by his opponent, Frank Hsieh of the Democratic Progressive Party, to warn that the Chinese crackdown in Tibet represented a warning of what could also happen to Taiwan if it did not stand up to Beijing.
In
a story just released on MSNBC,
Taiwan's opposition candidate cruised to victory in the presidential election Saturday, promising to expand economic ties with China while protecting the island from being swallowed up politically by its giant communist neighbor.
One wonders why the people of Taiwan would vote to elect a president from the political party that for 40 years ruled the island as the very antithesis of democracy, or as a
recent article in the Economist put it,
Its structure still followed the Leninist principles Soviet advisors had inculcated on the Chinese mainland in the 1920s, though it had become perhaps the world’s richest political party. A mass organisation of some 2.5m members, or nearly 15% of the population, it benefited from a rigged electoral system that ensured a permanent parliamentary majority, and, under martial law, a ban on opposition parties.
It was the party that presided over the “
White Terror” in the decades leading up to the 1990s.

But it was also the party that lifted marshal law in 1987 and allowed the first free elections:

Yet of all the people-power revolutions that sprouted and were sometimes savagely uprooted in Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s—the Philippines in 1986, South Korea in 1987, Burma in 1988, China in 1989 and Thailand in 1992—Taiwan’s, in 1990, was the most low-key and arguably the most successful. The KMT yielded—not without a fight, but without a shot being fired in anger.

Now, after eight years of a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president, the KMT is now back in power. Well, they were never really quite out of power. Even with a DPP president, the KMT still controlled the legislature, most of the government bureaucracies, and much of the press. The KMT was and is one of the wealthiest political parties in the world. So, on a day like today when only a fool would attempt to explain what happened in the election, one can wonder if, with enough money, an election can be bought.

One of the appeals of the KMT was the economic carrot of increased trade with China. Bradsher cites a conversation he had:

Jason Lin, a 41-year-old interior designer, said as he left a polling place in Taipei that he had always voted for the Democratic Progressive Party until this year and remains a member of the party. But he crossed party lines to vote for Mr. Ma on Saturday because he was convinced that Taiwan’s economic survival depended on closer ties.
“If we don’t get into China’s market, we are locked into our own country,” he said.
There are leaders in the KMT that seek unification with the Mainland, but Ma may not be one of them:
Mr. Ma has taken a more cautious approach to the mainland, attending annual vigils for those killed during the Tiananmen Square killings in Beijing in 1989 and denouncing the mainland’s repression of the
Falun Gong
spiritual movement over the past decade. During the campaign, he ruled out any discussion of political reunification while calling for the introduction of direct, regularly scheduled flights to Shanghai and Beijing and an end to Taiwan’s extensive limits on its companies’ ability to invest on the mainland.
In addition to the election of a president, there were also two referendums before the electorate. Both called for Taiwan to apply for membership in the United Nations. President Chen had placed the first one and it called for applying in the name of “Taiwan.” As a way to split the vote and defeat the measure, the KMT sponsored another calling for application in the name of the “Republic of China,” the traditional name of the government under KMT rule. The KMT also instructed its members to boycott both referendums. Taiwan's referendum law requires a majority of eligible voters to vote on a referendum for it to be valid. Nationalists called for voters not to cast ballots for either initiative and slightly less than 36 percent of eligible voters did so.

It is not difficult to guess why it proved impossible to get a statement of the will of the people on applying for membership in the U.N., something the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese want. Referendum maneuvering had a large and perhaps determining hand in the defeat, but one should not discount public fear of the consequences of expressing this will of the people. Beijing was adamantly opposed to this expression of democracy and the Bush, unwilling to irritate Beijing, publicly opposed the referendums saying they were “provocative” acts. The threat of attack from the Mainland and opposition from the United States may well have played a decisive role in the defeat.
It is ironic, isn’t it? In his second inaugural address, President Bush said:
So it is the policy of the United States to see and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture… The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.
One might ask the president, which is more provocative: a) China’s 1000 plus missiles aimed at Taiwan, or b) Taiwan’s democratic referendum on joining the United Nations?

Last week, in an interview with the man who inspired Taiwan’s democratic reform movement move than 40 years ago, Peng Ming-min expressed some pessimism about the coming election.
"I have started to doubt whether, in this kind of culture, democracy is possible and can function."

"For democracy to function, you have to have some self-control. You have to have some restraint," said Peng, whose 1964 secretly printed manifesto launched Taiwan's democracy movement with its demand for an end to one party rule and a declaration that the island is a nation independent from China.

That act of defiance against the military rule of the KMT former nationalist government of China, which fled to Taiwan after being defeated in the civil war by Mao Zedong's Communists, earned Peng an eight-year prison sentence. He escaped to Sweden and then lived in exile in the United States.

Peng returned to Taiwan in 1991 after martial law was lifted and the transition to multiparty democracy affirmed. He was the DPP's unsuccessful candidate in the first free and fair presidential elections in 1996.

In the end, as he talks, Peng's skepticism about the prospect of entrenching Taiwan's democracy beyond erosion drops away.

"When I look at the number of years it took many western democracies to achieve what they have now, I remember it's only been 20 years here," he said.

"As long as we are not taken over by China, there is hope."
When I was in Taipei in November of 2003 participating in a panel on “Taiwan’s Democracy and Human Rights,” we recounted years of the KMT’s harsh one-party rule. At a break, a young official in the KMT sought me out and said, “In the past, the KMT did a lot of bad things, but we are not the same party anymore.” I hope not.

- Milo






Friday, March 21, 2008

WHY DID JESUS DIE?

AND WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE TO ME?

We are in “Holy Week” for Christians and the focus of Good Friday is on the death of Jesus. Special services will be held. There will be talk and singing about how he “died for me.”

The narratives from the Gospels of what is called the “passion and death” of Jesus are being read in churches around the world. These narratives offer much detail and description to what is one of the few things we know about Jesus from secular sources—that he was crucified for insurrection by the Roman Governor of Palestine.

In contrast to our tradition-induced inoculation against the horror of the event, the early Christians could not bring themselves to depict it.
[1] From the very beginning of Christianity there is art with a distinctively Christian message. Even in the first century there are gravestones where there are pictures of the Church depicted as the saving ark of Noah and the Holy Spirit as a descending dove. There are pictures of early Christians praying with uplifted hands. In the catacombs where early Christian martyrs were laid, there are pictures of Christ as the Unconquered Sun, the Good Shepherd, the Last Supper, and even scenes of the Madonna and the Child. But nowhere is there a crucifixion scene.

The central fact of Jesus' life, his grisly suffering and death, traumatized early Christians. Even though it was the central reality with which they had to contend, they could not look at it directly. For the first three hundred years after Jesus the cross and crucifixion was all too familiar to Christians. Not only Jesus, but untold numbers of Christians, endured this ultimate form of Roman humiliation, punishment the Romans reserved exclusively for those judged guilty of insurrection against the state. These Christians understood something of the significance of the words “He died for us” that we have lost. Not until the fifth century, one hundred years after crucifixion was outlawed as a form of execution, do we find the crucifixion of Jesus depicted in art, the earliest probably being that carved in wood as one of several scenes in Jesus' life in a side door of the basilica of Santa Sabina, a Roman church on Aventine Hill.

Of course, there were those in the decades after the crucifixion of Jesus who hadn’t been present who, when they contemplated the horror of Jesus' suffering, concluded that Jesus was not really human and so didn't really suffer. I feel confident that none of those who had actually been there would have harbored such illusions.

Even then those early Christians tried to comprehend the meaning of the suffering, as have Christians down through the centuries. Some said Jesus' suffering and death was the result of a deal God made with the devil -- the death of God's beloved son in exchange for forgiving the sins of human kind. Others said that Jesus' suffering and death was the requirement of a God of justice in order to be able to forgive our sins. For me, those images are of a God that I don't know. They depict the image of a God who requires some kind of blood sacrifice, a practice that the Hebrew prophets had rejected long before Jesus' time. They depict an image of God that Jesus did not know, a God that Jesus called "Abba," a familiar term for "Father" that in our time might be more accurately translated "Daddy."

In order for me to understand the meaning of the expression "he died for," I cannot look at Jesus as a pawn in some kind of cosmic chess game played by God so to be able to forgive our sin. Jesus' terrible suffering and death have meaning for me in the choices that Jesus himself willingly made. That may be because I have always been more interested in history than in systematic theology, or it may be why I've been more interested in history.

Why did Jesus die? If we read the Gospels carefully, I believe they tell us. I think Jesus died for three historically verifiable reasons.

First, he was a threat to the Romans because of his identification with the people they were oppressing. We make a mistake if we assume that Jesus was crucified for religious, not political reasons. The punishment for religious violations was stoning. Jesus was not stoned. The cross was a mode of punishment reserved for crimes of rebellion against the Roman state. The accusations against Jesus that led to his death as reported in the Gospel of Luke are clear: "We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king." (Luke 23:2)

Second, while Jesus was crucified by the Roman government for sedition, he was also crucified because he was a threat to some religious leaders, some self-appointed "gate-keepers" of God's grace. Jesus opposed the interpretation of the Law that had become a way to divide people into clean and unclean, godly and ungodly, righteous and sinners. Jesus was a threat to those religious leaders because of his identification with the people their interpretation of the Law had made "sinners," thus outside the pale of God's grace.

Third, Jesus was also a threat because he refused to believe that God's love and mercy were limited to only one nation or people, even Jesus’ own "chosen" people. He was killed because of his belief that God's love and mercy were for Jews and Gentiles alike. That's why he died and what he died about. Sometimes we make too complex what should be simple and obvious.

We’ve also made Jesus’ death too cultic, complex, and un-related to the reasons why he actually died. Those of us who believe that Jesus faithfully represented the God we worship need to acknowledge that those things that resulted in his death are things this God cares about.

First, God cares about oppressed people—in ancient times of Egypt under the Pharaohs, in Palestine in the time of Jesus, in today’s Palestine or anywhere else in the world including the United States of America. If Jesus gave his life standing for oppressed people, doesn’t it stand to reason that is where we are also called to stand?

Second, God cares about people made outsiders by the religious establishment, of whatever race, creed or time. Has the church of which I am a part made any more outsiders than we have by our Disciplinary pronouncements on homosexuality? If Jesus gave his life standing for such people, doesn’t it stand to reason that is where we are called to stand?

Third, God cares about all people, not just “chosen” people" and self-proclaimed “Christians,” but all people. God cares for people of all faiths and those of no religious faith equally. Because that is where Jesus stood and because that is what he died about, doesn’t it stand to reason that is where we are called to stand?

Is it too simple and obvious to say that this is what Jesus’ death means for us here and now?

Good Friday is a day not for a morbid focus on the death of Jesus, but on introspection and self-examination. The focus of the old spiritual is not on “when they crucified my Lord,” but on “Were you there?” And where are you now? Our answer to the question may well be with the writer of the lyrics, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” Long time student of the death of Jesus,
Raymond Brown, often remarked,

“If Jesus were to return to earth, the first thing we would do is crucify him again.”
- Milo


[1] Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. (New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1999), p. 285.





Wednesday, March 19, 2008

THE WAR, OBAMA, AND THE TWO DAUGHTERS OF HOPE


This evening I plan to attend a candlelight vigil observing that the U.S. war in Iraq began five years ago today, making this the second longest war in U.S. history, longer than World War II, longer than the Civil War, second only to the Vietnam War. It was not supposed to be; “Shock and Awe” was to insure quick and total victory.

I confess that I write this out of anger that borders on rage, but I trust that is an expression of hope. St. Augustine put it this way:
Hope has two lovely daughters, anger and courage: anger so that what cannot be, may not be; and courage, so that what must be, will be.
“Shock and Awe” was a production of the United States
National Defense University in 1996:
“Shock and Awe,” technically known as rapid dominance, is a military doctrine based on the use of overwhelming decisive force, dominant battlefield awareness, dominant maneuvers, and spectacular displays of power to paralyze an adversary's perception of the battlefield and destroy its will to fight.
The authors, Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, of this doctrine identified four vital characteristics of “rapid dominance:”
1) near total or absolute knowledge and understanding of self, adversary, and environment;
2) rapidity and timeliness in application;
3) operational brilliance in execution;
4) and (near) total control and signature management of the entire operational environment.
By these criteria the U.S. military forces achieved “2” and “3”, but within weeks of the invasion it was equally clear that the U.S. had miserably failed in “1” and “4”.

Nowhere in this doctrine was any consideration of the legitimacy of its use for a pre-emptive war that was illegal by most any standard of international law or common morality. Illegality and immorality do not, in the short run anyway, presage failure of a military operation. But the ignorance of the war planners in “understanding self, adversary, and environment,” and massive incompetence in “management of the entire operational environment” have brought us where we are today, stalemated in the second longest war in U.S. history.

Iraq is also the second most expensive war in history, surpassed only by World War II. In their new book,
The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict (March 3, 2008), Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes link war costs to the current economic crisis:
The spending on Iraq was a hidden cause of the current credit crunch because the US central bank responded to the massive financial drain of the war by flooding the American economy with cheap credit.

The regulators were looking the other way and money was being lent to anybody this side of a life-support system.

That led to a housing bubble and a consumption boom, and the fallout was plunging the US economy into recession and saddling the next US president with the biggest budget deficit in history.
The credentials of these two scholars are not too shabby. Joseph Stiglitz is a Nobel Prize-winning economist and former World Bank vice-president. Linda J. Blimes is a professor of public finance at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and a former assistant secretary for management and budget in the U.S. Department of Commerce. After this week’s chilling economic news, it may be worth while to pay attention to their research.

In their calculations, they make no attempt to include the cost of the war to Iraq, but they speak clearly to another cost of the war:
One of the greatest discrepancies is that the official figures do not include the long-term healthcare and social benefits for injured servicemen, who are surviving previously fatal attacks because of improved body armour.

The ratio of injuries to fatalities in a normal war is 2:1. In this war they admitted to 7:1 but a true number is (something) like 15:1.

Some 100,000 servicemen have been diagnosed with serious psychological problems and the soldiers doing the most tours of duty have not yet returned.
When you talk about war deaths, any quantification seems to belittle the unimaginable horror and pain one death causes for any one circle of family and friends. I am grateful for the battlefield medical practices that have reduced the ratio of injuries to death in this war. But if we are to try to grasp the enormity of the human cost of this war and if the above ratios are accurate, the number of U.S. soldiers who have been wounded have been upwards of 60,000. That is not counting the 100,000 who have been diagnosed with serious psychological problems and the unknown number yet to come home or those here who have not yet been diagnosed. In comparison with earlier wars with a ratio of 2:1 our death rate would by now already have been over 30,000.

If you contemplate the number of deaths of Iraqis—and I certainly hope you do—and justifiably assume that the injury to death ratio is more like 2:1, how many deaths of Iraqis has this war caused? One
credible estimate is 1,189,173. Others have it much higher. Our government seems to have no interest in the number.

There is yet no way to calculate what the prosecution of this war has cost the democratic institutions of this country—the separation of powers and civil liberty.

Nor is yet no way to calculate the damage done to the morale of our soldiers and to our image in the world by the use of private military companies who are subject neither to the laws of the military, Iraq, or the United States. As Scott Horton puts it in a
recent article in Harpers,
The Bush Administration has crafted a culture of impunity for contractors in Iraq. This can be seen in a number of acts and in a policy of official indifference towards violent crime involving contractors. The victims of this policy are Iraqi civilians, coalition military, and members of the contractor force themselves. As a senior general in Iraq recently told one of my colleagues: “The three biggest threats faced by American soldiers in Iraq are IEDs, al Qaeda fighters, and unaccountable contractors.” Repeated hearings and demands for action from Congress are ignored by the Justice Department.
What rationale to implement “Shock and Awe” justifies these costs? Weapons of Mass Destruction, replacing a dictator, and democratic nation building in the Muslim world, have all been offered and have just as quickly discredited. The truth is the American public does not yet know the real reason why President Bush invaded Iraq. Oil, U.S. hegemony, a justfication for seizing unprecedented power for the executive branch and undermining civil liberties, are suspected, but as far as I know not proven. I believe that it is some combination of these. What we know is that the war in Iraq, in the words of the title of Frank Rich’s book, was
The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but for a while many of us bought the story. Even if at this point the president told us the truth, whatever it was, most would not believe him.

This administration has almost ten more months in office, and more if Senator McCain who seems to be running for a third term of this administration wins. We know that whoever wins the White House in November and takes office in January, getting out of Iraq will not be easy, or without its own costs. We will be paying for this war for generations. The people of Iraq will be paying for centuries.

If another country had attacked our country, as Japan did in 1941, and conducted itself as we have in Iraq, Abu Ghrib, Guantanamo, and other convenient prisons throughout the world disregarding the Geneva Conventions, when the war was over, we would try that country’s leaders as war criminals. If we can’t understand that, we do not understand how much of the world views what we have done in Iraq or the fundamental immorality of our action there.

When I lift my candle against the darkness of this war tomorrow night, I pledge that I will never rationalize the illegality and immorality of this war to my children, my friends, or anyone else. I will also be saying a prayer that Senator Barack Obama is elected in November. The wisdom and breadth of vision he demonstrated in his speech today in Philadelphia, “
A More Perfect Union,” confirmed why he is the person I want as president. He said that if we don’t address the problem of race in this election, there will be something else to distract us in the next one. There are issues, he said, that he must be addressed “this time,” including the war in Iraq:
This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should've been authorized and never should've been waged, and we want to talk about how we'll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.
Obama is right; this is “the time.” Now we need that other lovely daughter of Hope—Courage.

- Milo

Monday, March 17, 2008

SAINT PATRICK: A STORY WORTH REMEMBERING

No matter one’s faith persuasion or choosing not to have one at all, I suspect that we all live by stories. Even though I am neither Irish nor Roman Catholic, I think this is a story worth remembering. Today is St. Patrick’s Day. I would like to think that all those lining the parade routes in South Boston, New York City, Dublin and hundreds of other cities are doing so because they admire the way St. Patrick lived and want to imitate him, but I'm not sure that will be the case. I sometimes wish that it was St. Patrick that I see on Wheaties cereal boxes or in the Nike ads, but perhaps its OK that he never has been and never will be. It may be that my children will only know about St. Patrick if I tell them.

Patricius was born around 389 on the western edge of the Roman Empire in a place in Britannia we now call Scotland. Patricius spent his early years in comfort in a family of Roman citizens. His parents were nominally Christian, like many of the hundreds of thousands who had become Christian because it was the fashionable thing to do. Their casual indifference to genuine faith would not sustain the boy when he was sixteen years old and kidnapped, taken to Ireland and sold as a slave. Across the sea to the west Ireland was just beyond the westernmost boundary of the Roman Empire. Patricius was sold to a tribal chief who sent him to the mountains to care for his sheep, a place where he was so alone that his only constant companions were nakedness and hunger. Without any other faith resources, the youth began to pray the only prayer he knew, "Our Father, who art in heaven…" Over and over he prayed it, day after day, night after night, until the time came that God became close and real to him.

After six years as a slave, Patricius was led in a vision to escape. He walked over 200 miles to find a boat that took him back to the safety of his family. Although his family wanted nothing more than for him to stay at home and pursue a career there, Patricius had another vision that called him back to Ireland, the place where he had been a slave. After he was trained as a priest and became a bishop, he returned to Ireland to serve for the next thirty years, where he became St. Patrick, apostle to the Irish nation. As the Roman Empire was crumbling, Ireland was moving from chaos to peace. And it was because of Patrick.

There are many legends about Patrick that may or may not be true. He didn't really run the snakes out of Ireland. He may or may not have used a three-leaf clover as a symbol for the Trinity. But what he did is far more remarkable than any of the legends about him. I want to mention three of them.

First, Patrick led the people of Ireland, the whole nation, to Christianity. Most of the other nations in Europe and the Middle East had become "Christian" because it was the "Roman" thing to do. Ireland is the first nation to become Christian because they chose it, not because of any social status it offered.

In fact, the Christianity established in Ireland by Patrick was distinctly un-Roman. Not connected with the papal system or the Roman hierarchy, Celtic Christianity developed around individual leaders and monasteries, and the Irish monks were leaders in spreading and preserving the Christian faith. In the monasteries a woman could have authority over men and women alike – an irregularity which would have offended Roman sensibilities. And it may very well be that one of Patrick’s converts, Brigid of Kildare, was the first woman ever to be consecrated a bishop.
[1]

Second, under Patrick’s leadership the previously illiterate people of Ireland became literate. The Irish were learning to read and write as the people of the Roman Empire were sinking rapidly into illiteracy. As the libraries and precious manuscripts were being destroyed throughout the old empire, the Irish became the scribes who copied and preserved the books. Where once they had prided themselves by carrying the heads of their enemies tied to their waists, now they carried books. That so many early Christian documents and scriptures, as well as the classics of Greek and Roman culture, survived the “Dark Ages” is largely due to Irish Christians, hence Thomas Cahill’s conclusion stated in the title of his book,
How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Third, led back to serve in the country of his enslavement, Patrick became the first person in recorded world history to speak out unequivocally against the institution of slavery. Within his lifetime or shortly thereafter in the fifth century, the slave trade ended in Ireland. No voice would be heard like his on this issue again until the seventeenth century -- thirteen hundred years later! It would not end in England until the 18th century, and in America it would not end until the 19th century.

Don’t you think this a story worth remembering? Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

- Milo


[1] Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (New York: Anchor Books, 1995) p. 173.



Sunday, March 16, 2008

PALM SUNDAY, JESUS, AND POLITICS

Today, according to the Christian calendar, is Palm Sunday, the day when Christians recall Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem two thousand years ago. It begins Holy Week and is often observed with a parade in the church of people waving palm branches.

This is not a sermon; it is a diary about the questions I have on this Palm Sunday. I am grateful for the faith I inherited from my parents and for the nurture I have received in the churches and denomination of which I have been a part. That gratitude does not keep me from agreeing with the words of Thomas Cahill in the conclusion of what for me has been the most refreshing study of Jesus I have read,
Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus:
For Christians, it may be a time to acknowledge that we have misunderstood Jesus in virtually every way that matters.
One of the points at which we may have most misunderstood him was how he related to the political reality of his time. I am going to skip over why we might have misunderstood him, for that requires a discourse on the entire history of Christianity. Instead I ask your indulgence to look at texts that are often read on Palm Sunday and use your imagination. If I do my task well enough I may supply you with some background that will stimulate your imagination and raise for you the questions that this occasion raises for me.

The texts: Zechariah 9:9-17; Matthew 21:1-11; Luke 19:28-40

With Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the stage is set for the final act in Jesus' life on earth. The road that began with his baptism in the Jordan and temptation in the desert has now led to Jerusalem. It is the seat of power and where the enemies of Jesus are concentrated. The high priests in the temple are safe from the Zealots here. The Zealots were patriotic Jewish “freedom fighters” or “insurrectionists,” depending on your perspective, who had been waging a guerrilla war against Rome since the time of the census at Jesus’ birth. They were fanatical in their loyalty to giving their allegiance to none but God. Even though the high priest and his family were Jewish, the Zealots' considered their cooperation with the Romans as political treason and religious apostasy. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and his guards in the city insured the security of the chief priests and the Sadducees. And if there was trouble, there were Roman soldiers garrisoned almost within shouting distance of the city.

Already the religious authorities had sought to find and arrest Jesus. Why? Was it because his compassion for human suffering repeatedly put him at odds with the accepted religious practices of the day? He healed on the Sabbath and he associated with people no self-respecting religious person would have anything to do with. Or, was it because he looked and sounded like the long-awaited Messiah? They had waited a long time for the Messiah and the Messiah hadn't shown up. Now they had a pretty good thing going with the Romans, and this Jesus -- just like the Zealots -- was about to bring down the wrath of Rome on top of all of them.

Jesus, like John the Baptist before him, had offended just about everyone, everyone that is except the poor and social outcasts. He must have also offended the Zealots. While Jesus never attacked them directly as he did the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians, Jesus' inclusiveness -- his openness to the Samaritans, his healing of a Roman officer's daughter, and especially the inclusion of a tax collector among the twelve disciples -- would have been especially repugnant to the Zealots.

And now it is the week of Passover. People from all over the country are filling the city. And here comes Jesus. He doesn't slip into the city under the cover of darkness. He doesn't come walking, as he had gone about the countryside for the past three years. He comes riding a donkey, acting out the Old Testament prophet Zechariah's vision of the coming Messiah.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.(9:9)

In interpreting of this event, Christian preaching has often talked about a "meek and mild" Jesus coming to Jerusalem, not with an army and riding chariots, but riding on a donkey. So surely, the way Jesus entered Jerusalem should not have been viewed as offensive, even to his enemies. That’s how I grew up reading this text.

In time, however, I learned some things that call into question that interpretation of his entry into Jerusalem. First, riding on the back of a donkey was the way the Messiah -- the descendent of King David, the one who would come in power to restore the Kingdom to Israel -- was prophesied to come. It was a symbol of royal power not weakness. This scene calls to mind a scene two hundred years earlier when the triumphant Jewish rebel leader, Simon Maccabaeus, entered Jerusalem "with praise and palm branches," and then proceeded to expel the Greek overlords. (I Maccabees 13:49-52)

The second problem I have with that interpretation is that if you read the whole oracle of this vision in Zechariah 9 as we did, "meek and mild" are not the images that come to my mind:

The Lord will appear above the people;
God will shoot arrows like lightning.
The Sovereign Lord will sound the trumpet;
God will march in the storms from the South.
The Lord Almighty will protect the people
and they will destroy their enemies.
They will shout in battle like drunk men
and will shed the blood of their enemies;
it will flow like the blood of a sacrifice
poured on the altar from a bowl.(9:14-15)


And yet, Jesus chose to act out Zechariah's prophecy of riding the donkey into Jerusalem. The Gospel writers all agree that Jesus is fulfilling this prophecy. The Gospel writers were not the only ones who knew the Zechariah prophecy: the Pharisees, high priests, and almost certainly Pilate's advisors, and probably the masses as well. And they also knew what it had meant two hundred years before when Simon Maccabaeus entered Jerusalem accompanied by palm branch waving crowds. The only difference seemed to be that then the overlords about to be overthrown were Greek, whereas now they were Roman.

Hold, for a minute, the question about what Jesus himself intended by this act. First ask about the people: what did they have a right to assume by his act? "God bless the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" cry the large crowd of followers. Some have said, "Well, Jesus certainly didn't intend to threaten the political authorities, because his kingdom is not of this world. The people and the authorities just misunderstood his action." According to Luke's account of this same event, some Pharisees who were watching, and perhaps who were friends, pled with Jesus, "Command your disciples to be quiet." (Luke 19:39) They understood the meaning of the symbolic act. Jesus’ response to them was sharp: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (19:40)

Given the inflamed political situation in Palestine at that time, acting out the prophesy and then saying that he didn't really mean what everyone would assume that it would mean, is a little like someone shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater. Then, after the panic with people trampled to death, you explain that you really didn't mean "Fire". Are we to imagine that Jesus was so politically naive that he didn't understand what a reaction his identification with the Zechariah prophesy might provoke and the suffering that might come down on them? I don't think so.

Now I ask: what was in Jesus' mind as he deliberately fulfilled this prophesy? What have you imagined was in his mind? I can tell you what I think, but you have to make up your own minds. These are my questions:

1. Did Jesus come to Jerusalem to confront the Jewish and Roman authorities with his kingdom, which was of, and yet beyond, this world? I don’t have any doubt about that. Do you?

2. Did he come to confront those authorities with a kingdom that was truly inclusive of all kinds of people? After what we have seen of his ministry, I don’t have any doubt about that either. What about you?


3. Did Jesus imagine that, in the midst of this confrontation, God might send legions of angels to overthrow the Romans, cast out the false priests, establish this new kingdom, and prevent his death on the cross? Maybe! In the account of Jesus’ arrest, Matthew remembers Jesus’ words to the disciple who had drawn a sword and cut off the ear of one coming to arrest Jesus: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and [God] will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53) When Jesus spoke of “twelve legions” he was speaking of a heavenly army 72,000 strong. But he didn’t summon them to come to his aid. What Jesus had taught about non-violence, he chose to live out in this confrontation.


4. Did Jesus know that this confrontation in Jerusalem would cost him his life? Probably. He did not have to be able to foretell the future to know what awaited him in Jerusalem if God’s "twelve legions” did not intervene.


5. Did he think that he would be raised to life again on the third day? Since the Gospel accounts of Jesus were all written after the resurrection and all of his life and ministry interpreted from that knowledge, it is hard to say what Jesus really felt as he approached Jerusalem. If the promise of the incarnation is true, that God in Christ really did become human, then we may have some assurance that Jesus experienced all of the fears and anxieties that the rest of us would in that situation, fears and anxieties manifest in his prayer in Gethsemane and his prayer from the cross. What do you think?


There is much that I do not know about the meaning of this story. It really is a puzzle and I don't have neat answers for you. What most troubles me is not what I don't know about it, but what I do know. What we know is that Jesus was doing what he thought God wanted him to do, even if it was going to cost him his life. Jesus chose to be faithful and come to Jerusalem when it would have been safer to stay away. He chose to be faithful even though he probably did not know what God would do -- or not do -- when he confronted the authorities. He chose to be faithful, even on Thursday night, when he really knew what lay ahead, and even on Friday when he thought God had abandoned him on the cross.


That's what faithfulness is all about, isn't it. Faith is not believing that you have all the answers to life's most difficult problems. Faith is the willingness to trust that God will guide you when you don't have the answers. And faithfulness is acting out that trust in specific situations. Faithfulness is being obedient even when we don't know the particulars of the outcome. Faithfulness is being obedient even when we would rather do something else. Faithfulness is being obedient even when we know the cost will be great, and we don't know if we have a parachute.

Now the hard question: does this incident in the life of Jesus say anything to you about your faithfulness in relation to political reality in our time (war, a presidential election, economic recession, terrorism). That, dear friend, is where I hope reflecting on this incident will lead you, as it does me, on this Palm Sunday and in Holy Week ahead of us.

- Milo




Saturday, March 15, 2008

UPDATE ON BUSH LIBRARY AT SMU

As an alumnus of Southern Methodist University, I received a letter from President Gerald R. Turner saying that he wanted me to hear directly from him that after a competition with seven other institutions, SMU had been chosen as the site of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, Museum and Institute. He wrote:
Only a handful of cities and universities host presidential libraries. For Texas to have three of them gives our state a unique triumvirate of resources for studying presidential history during pivotal times. The Presidential Center is another way in which SMU can serve our community, the nation and the world.
But will it serve the community, the nation and the world? Or will it simply continue the obfuscation, which has become the Bush administrations most distinguishing feature? (Check
here and here for my earlier posts on this controversy.)

The Chronicle of Higher Education has sponsored a
“back-of-the envelope” contest for suitable architectural designs of the new institution:
We thought that Chronicle readers would have their own ideas about how that building should be designed, and we invited people to send in designs on the backs of envelopes. About 120 people sent in sketches that were good, bad, serious, humorous, abstract, or really angry.
Go to this website, review the designs, and vote for the one you think best represents the proposed library, museum and institute. Carlson concludes:
If you felt your vote didn't count in 2000, it will certainly count here. The winning designer will get an iPod Touch. Hail to the chief.
Back to President Turner’s letter: Turner assures me that the Bush Institute will operate independently of SMU and that the relationship between the two “will not interfere with SMU’s commitment to open inquiry and academic freedom within the University.” That the presence of the institution will not be allowed to infringe on the rest of the university is, I suppose, something in which to take comfort. But with conditions that apply at no other presidential library, neither will SMU's "open inquiry" and "academic freedom" be allowed to infringe on the Bush Institute. According to Don Evans, chair of the Bush foundation, the think tank and presidential library will be a place to “celebrate this great president, celebrate his accomplishments.” It is scandalous that an institution dedicated to “higher learning” should have agreed to the terms required by the Bush Foundation.

The letter says that fund-raising for the Presidential Center will be conducted by the Bush Foundation. The estimated cost is half a billion dollars. President Turner says SMU will cooperate with that effort but the university will continue its own fundraising for the university. He concludes his letter with,
Our alumni and parents are a major source of that strength, enhancing our reputation through your daily achievements as well as support.
The reputation of the university has been sullied by the terms to house, as part of the university, the Bush Library, Museum, and Institute.

The reputation of the university has been damaged in another way, as Andrew Weaver has made clear:
The signing of a 99 year lease with the Bush foundation is contemptuous of the democratic processes of the United Methodist Church (UMC). SMU does not own the land upon which the lease is based. The UMC owns the property, and it has not been given the opportunity to decide whether it wishes to give permission to the Bush foundation to build a think tank to “celebrate the life and work of George W. Bush.”
The people who have asked for respect for due process have been shoved aside, as unfortunately has been the norm for the Bush administration, a process which the university is now perpetuating.

In a letter received Friday, March 14, 2008,
Andrew Weaver writes:

Legal advisors tell us that we must go to court to protect the property rights and voting rights of the 290 Jurisdictional Conference delegates who are the elected representatives of the property owners -- the 1.83 million UMC members of the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ). We are reluctant to take this matter to the civil courts, but we see no alternative.

Our lawyers, mostly United Methodists, who have given us free counsel and legal research for several months, will continue their pro bono help as much as possible. However, we expect to be pitted against some of the most powerful law firms in Texas and beyond. To wage this fight we need funds.We need your help to raise $15,000. Please give as generously as you are able. If 30 of you would each contribute $500, we could begin the legal fight to defend the rights of the delegates to say "no" to Bush when the South Central Jurisdictional Conference meets in July. Without your help we will not be able to challenge in the courts this illegal and immoral act by the SMU trustees.

Contributions can be sent to Rev. Bob F. Weathers, 2420 Willing Avenue, Fort Worth, Texas 76110. Rev. Weathers is a highly regarded member of the Central Texas Conference and a former District Superintendent. Please make checks out to “Protect SMU Fund.”

Many of those who oppose the establishment of this institution at SMU are alumni who contribute generously to the university. I suspect that some of these are rethinking commitments they have made to the university and considering instead assisting in this legal defense. So be it.

-Milo



Friday, March 14, 2008

HOUSE PASSES FISA BILL WITHOUT IMMUNITY

Friday afternoon, by a vote of 213 to 197, the House passed its own version of the Senate Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and it did not include retro-active immunity for the telecoms. The bill also would initiate a yearlong bipartisan panel modeled after the 9/11 Commission to investigate the administration's so-called warrantless wiretapping program.

I watched the debate on C-Span. Of the many speeches that were made pro and con, I thought Speaker Nancy Pelosi made the issues clear. First, she commended Mr. Conyers, chair of the Judiciary Committee, and Mr. Reyes, chair of the Intelligence Committee, for bringing the legislation to the floor. She said,
They know, as does each and every one of us, that our primary responsibility is to protect the American people. We take an oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic. And in the Preamble, it states that one of our primary responsibilities is to provide for the common defense. We take those responsibilities seriously, and I don’t take seriously any statements by some in this body that any person here is abdicating that responsibility…
As Chairman Conyers and Chairman Reyes have already pointed out in some detail, this legislation will meet our responsibility to protect America while also protecting our precious civil liberties.

The President has said that our legislation will not make America safe. The President is wrong and I think he knows it. He knows that our legislation contains within it the principles that were suggested by the Director of National Intelligence, Mr. McConnell, early on, as to what is needed to protect our people in terms of intelligence.
And then she went on to address the central issue in the President 's objections to in the bill—retroactive immunity for the telecoms who participated in the administration’s warrantless wiretpapping. The administration does not want any judicial review of those activities. As Chairman Conyers and numerous others pointed out their remarks, it is not up to the administration or Congress to determine if laws have been broken; it is the role of the judicial branch.

The bill before us acknowledges that immunity for the companies may already exist under current law and allows that determination to be decided by a judge with due protection for classified information. Not by hundreds of people who really do not have the facts.
Speaker Pelosi went on to talk about why the Administration opposes judicial determination:

Why would the Administration oppose a judicial determination of whether the companies already have immunity? There are at least three explanations:

First, the President knows that it was the Administration’s incompetence in failing to follow the procedures in the statute that prevented immunity from being conveyed – that’s one possibility. They simply didn’t do it right. Second, the Administration’s legal argument that the surveillance requests were lawfully authorized was wrong; or third, public reports that the surveillance activities undertaken by the companies went far beyond anything about which any Member of Congress was notified, as is required by the law.

None of these alternatives is attractive, but they clearly demonstrate why the Administration’s insistence that Congress provide retroactive immunity has never been about national security or about concerns for the companies; it has always been about protecting the Administration.


On NBC’s Nightly News Thursday evening there was a segment on “FBI Privacy Abuses.” After seeing it, I had an even greater reason to suspect the Administration’s intentions. An Inspector General’s report said that the FBI has been improperly collecting personal information on thousands of Americans and taking steps to hide the extent of their actions. In 2006, 50,000 letters were issued for personal information on people, 60% of whom were U.S. citizens. Senator Frank Leahy of Vermont said the obvious, “The people who are supposed to be enforcing the law, ought to obey the law.” But what we have seen repeatedly with this Administration is that it sees itself above the law.

After closing arguments, debate ended and the House voted. This bill will now go back to the Senate.

Because the President has promised to veto this bill if it passes in the Senate, "this vote has no impact at all," said Republican Whip Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri. I think Blunt is wrong; I think the vote is an indication that Americans are not convinced by the President’s demands and have legitimately begun to be concerned about their civil liberties.

Today, the House stood up to the President, who to this point has pretty much had his way with Congress. We’ve not seen the end of the struggle yet, but the Administration’s efforts to keep the extent of its illegal wiretapping under wraps has been dealt another blow. Thomas Jefferson said, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." I think we saw that vigilance in the House today. Let's stay awake for the next round.


- Milo





Thursday, March 13, 2008

A BROWN WOMAN'S OPEN LETTER TO FERRARO


In 1984, when former Vice President and Presidential candidate named Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, I was proud to be a Democrat. I was proud that for the first time a major party had selected a woman to be on the ticket. It wasn’t just that she was a woman; she was a qualified woman. Too many qualified women had been overlooked because of their gender. Mondale and Ferraro were defeated in an electoral landslide by incumbent President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush, but that didn’t diminish the pride I felt in the Democratic ticket.

As a male, I can only imagine the sexist slights that she has doubtless encountered in her career. It was ironic that in 1988 she could say of Jesse Jackson’s victory in one of the Democratic primaries that it was because he was black. The people of New York did not forget those comments in her two unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate in 1992 and 1998.

I was sad and angry when earlier this week Ferraro repeatedly made comments that Obama’s campaign was successful because he was black. She resigned from the finance committee of Hillary Clinton, she said, because "The Obama campaign is attacking me to hurt you. I won't let that happen." She said later that she was being attacked because she was white. I was disappointed in Clinton’s tepid response that she didn’t agree with Ferraro.

Today, when I read “A Brown Woman’s Open Letter to Geraldine Ferraro and the Clinton Campaign,” I knew I wanted to share it with you. It says what I feel about this incident.

Dear Geraldine Ferraro and Clinton Campaign,

Geraldine Ferraro, I would like you to know that I am someone who always gives people the benefit of the doubt, but it was through your arrogant responses to the backlash you have received that I am convinced that you meant exactly what you said. I don’t know much about you, I was only 1 year old when you were the Vice President nominee, but as a fellow Democrat, the last 48 hours have deeply troubled me.

I would like you to know that the combination of your statement(s) and the Clinton campaign’s response; I cried last night. Yes, I cried. Let’s start with this:

You said: "He happens to be very lucky to be who he is"

It reminded me of when I was 17 years old sitting in my AP Calculus class, and a "friend" in "congratulating" me for being accepted into a prestigious undergraduate institution told me how "you’re so lucky that you’re last name is ______." Because of course, to him, my higher test scores and higher GPA were nothing in balance to my Spanish surname. That was supposed to be one of the happiest days of my life, yet I went home and cried to my father. I woke up the next morning with an e-mail from my dad saying, "Yes, you are lucky to be Mexican. Because Mexicans are some of the hardest working people in the world."

I received multiple comments like that as a teen, and admittedly they affected me. It took me a couple of years as an undergraduate to feel as though I was more than a charity case, that my spot was earned, even though I knew my qualifications and hard work better than anyone that made such comments.

Geraldine Ferraro you also said this: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."

This reminded me of how after my success and confidence as an undergrad finally outgrew my "affirmative-action-baby-complex," (for lack of a better term) that little did I know, I would be confronted with it over and over again no matter how great and how successful my accomplishments were. I, as a woman of color, know what it feels like for someone to not find it conceivable for you to be where you are.

A clearly blatant example of this was my very first orientation event for my Ivy League law school. It was held at a local bar, and myself along with three other students of color walked to the door, at which point the security guard asked us to step to the side thinking we were just "locals" and we had to wait for the white students in line behind us who were obviously students for the private party in the back to enter before us. Because in that security guard’s eyes it was inconceivable for us to be ivy-league law students. It was a lovely way to start my law school career. Obviously, this was not an employee of the school, but it speaks to the basic prejudices that still exist widely.

Because what you fail to recognize Geraldine Ferraro, is that when you say "he would not be in this position," you are consequentially saying that you have no conceivable alternative (I don’t know maybe intelligence, dignity, at least equal if not better experience, hard work, and a smarter and better organized campaign to name a few) for his success.

Lastly, let’s talk about this: "And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position."

The entirety of your statements inherently tells me that in your eyes: a woman of color is at the bottom of your expectations totem pole. That as a brown woman, no matter what future successes I may achieve, people like you will always have some other excuse or justification based on my gender and race for such accomplishments. In two months, I will be graduating from my second "elite" institution and entering into a workforce where last time I checked Latinas made up 1.2% of the working lawyer population. In other words, if you put 100 lawyers in a room, ONE will look like me. And because of statements like yours, the other 99 in the room might think I did not put in the same amount of work to be in that room that they did.

Geraldine Ferraro and the members of the Clinton Campaign, there are 3 main reasons why I am a Democrat:
1. compassion, 2. equality, 3. common sense

And there are three main reasons why I have issues with Republicans and their rhetoric:
1. greed, 2. inequality, 3. a lack of common sense

I am deeply discouraged and disappointed that within my own party I am beginning to have the same issues that I have with Republicans. Keep the greed, inequality, and lack of common sense to yourself. You are not our voice. You do not represent me. I reject and denounce your statements, and responses to your statements. And I will continue to focus on what I always have: that if you give me the opportunity, I will EXCEED your expectations, and if you don’t give me the opportunity, I’ll make one for myself.


I will not let one of the most amazing years of my life be tainted because of your flaws. Contrary to the media's belief, this Latino/Woman/Catholic/Californian does not buy into your rhetoric. Barack Obama has brought me closer to my friends, family, community and country. He has led me to believe in all that is good and possible through hard work and hope. He embodies compassion, equality, and common sense. So you may have gotten me down for one night, but it ends there. I have no chip on my shoulder, and I have no hatred in my heart. I am sticking to his message and consequentially, will no longer listen to yours.

Yes I can; therefore, Yes we can.

I would be interested in knowing what you think about the incident and this woman’s response.
- Milo

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE MEMBERS REJECT AMNESTY

Wednesday afternoon McJoan reported that John Conyers and 19 members of the House Judiciary Committee have rejected the Bush administration case for retroactive amnesty for the telecoms.
As a result of our review of classified as well as unclassified materials concerning the Administration’s Terrorist Surveillance Program, we have concluded that blanket retroactive immunity for phone companies is not justified. However, we do recommend a course of action that would both permit the carriers the opportunity to defend themselves in court and also protect classified information – by eliminating current legal barriers and authorizing relevant carriers to present fully in court their claims that they are immune from civil liability under current law, with appropriate protections to carefully safeguard classified information. In addition, we recommend legislation to fill a current gap in liability protection for carriers, and to create a bipartisan commission to thoroughly investigate the legality of the warrantless surveillance program....

Accordingly, we support a resolution that would, notwithstanding the state secrets doctrine, authorize relevant carriers to present fully in court their claims that they are immune from civil liability under current law, with appropriate security protections to carefully safeguard classified information. This solution would ensure that carriers can fully present their arguments that they are immune under current law, while also ensuring that Americans who believe their privacy rights were violated will have the issue considered by the courts based on the applicable facts and law, consistent with our traditional system of government and checks and balances.

Our review has also led us to support two other recommendations. First, there is arguably a gap in liability protections for carriers that complied with lawful surveillance requests covering the time period between the expiration of the Protect America Act and the future enactment of more lasting FISA reform legislation. As Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid have proposed, legislation to fill that gap is justified and important. This provision is not included in the Senate FISA bill, and shoul dbe included in any final legislative product.

In addition, our review of classified information has reinforced serious concerns about the potential illegality of the Administration’s actions in authorizing and carrying out its warrantless surveillance program. We, therefore, recommend the creation of a bipartisan commission to conduct hearings and take other evidence to fully examine that program. Like the 9/11 Commission, it would make findings and recommendations in both classified and unclassified reports and thus inform and educate the American people on this troubling subject.
McJoan's comment:

This statement is a solid justification for the legislation House leadership introduced yesterday. It also covers some new ground. First, it found among the telcos "a variety of actions at various times with differing justifications in response to Administration requests." So it was potentially not just Qwest. Additionally, "a variety of actions at various times with differing justifications in response to Administration requests," making the case critical to be decided by the courts, not by Congress. Furthermore, "the arguments for blanket retroactive immunity – that a decision not to enact it will irreparably harm the relevant carriers and that it will endanger our national security – have not been substantiated, either in a public or a classified setting."

This is a strong rebuke for retroactive amnesty, and provides what would be a legal, responsible, and appropriate solution to the amnesty stalemate. Which means, of course, that the Republicans (and probably Rockefeller) will oppose it.

The struggle on this issue is not over, but the letter from the 19 members of the House Judiciary Committee is a hopeful sign. Stay tuned.


- Milo