Friday, December 31, 2010

On Entrances and Exits

If you knew there was a sealed envelope in your desk drawer with the exact date you are to die, would you open it?

About the only thing I know for sure about Janus is that the first month of the year is named after him, and the first day of that month was dedicated to him. He was Roman God of Gates and Doors, his distinctive two faces look toward what is behind and the other toward what lies ahead. His name appears in the title of this blog because that is what I want to do throughout the year.

The descendant traditions of Roman culture are not the only ones who at the end of the old and beginning the New Year, look backward and forward. We’ve been reminded ad nauseam of the “ten most important events of the past year”, and the ten most everything else in every area of life.

In his role as Guardian of Exits and Entrances, Janus was also believed to represent beginnings, as one must come through a door or gate to enter a new place. He was a natural for having his name for the first month of the year, a month referred to by the Ancient Romans as Ianuarius, taken from the Etruscan word jauna which means "door."

Crossing the threshold from 2010 to 2011 tonight is a human invention. I don’t think the operation of the universe has anything to do with the ball dropping at Time’s Square, and yet, however imprecise, the way we mark years reflect something of the way the universe works. Not only that, there seems to be something within us that needs to mark the passage of time. Our culture’s preoccupation with New Year’s resolutions are not imposed on us, unless simply by strength of tradition, but do reflect the sense that in the coming year we (as individuals and communities at all levels) will make some entrances and exits. There is nothing magic about the “New Year,” but recognizing the date change is a reminder of inevitable new beginnings and new endings.

So what would you do with the envelope? I can see a scene where I rush to open it, but a more likely one where I either burn it unopened or keep it sealed and unread. Although some folks believe that with access to a celestial mail system or the right interpretation of their scripture they could know the future, I’m not one of them.

In my view the “future” does not exist as an entity on a continuum with the past and present. The future is shaped by millions of acts made in the past and present. And if there is even a hint of any free will in these decisions, the future is unknowable. With apologies to John Calvin and whatever God in which you believe, the future is simply not yet. While we may see trends in the past and present that make certain results probably in the future, to my way of thinking anyway, they are just that. I choose to believe this because a) it makes sense to me, and b) it means that my decisions, however small, have the possibility of adding something better to the present and the future.

The question about the envelope is interesting because of what the possibility evokes. I come down on the side of not wanting to know the date of my death in the future; I don’t even want to know if President Obama will be reelected in 2012. I embrace the notion that my actions may have something to do with when my death comes; whether or not the President is reelected; and on other matters.

So I’ll keep on trying to understand the present by examining the past and seek to make decisions that will make the present better. It is of no little comfort that I have the counsel of so many friends in both these tasks. We have been through many entrances and exits together. Thank you!

- Milo

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How Does a Lame Duck Walk?

 Yes, I know; beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as are those acts that help overcome the past by adding something better.

In the early hours of December 24, 2009, the Senate passed the health care reform bill. In the eye of this beholder, it was a wonderful Christmas gift. Republicans, however, thought its passage meant that the Grinch had stolen Christmas; not one voted for it. Some liberal Democrats thought the same thing for entirely different reasons. There was much to dislike from both perspectives, including mine, but I believed that getting this much was a monumental achievement and portended adding something better to a past that had repeatedly failed to pass any kind of health care reform.

Three months later House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got the House to pass the bill on March 21 and two days after that President Obama signed it into law. In spite of that monumental victory, the year 2010 didn’t look like a banner year for the Democrats, one of which I am because their legislative vision for the country seems more in sync with mine. Even before the November election, I went into a blue funk and for the first time in years didn’t want to watch or read the news. The election confirmed my fears. Except for a few races where deep corporate pockets, conveniently out of public sight, couldn’t overcome a semblance of common sense, the electorate went on an anti-Democrat binge. Republicans didn’t see it that way; most of them thought it citizen retribution for Democratic spending and supporting wrong causes (anything the Chamber of Commerce didn’t like).

 And then came the six week lame duck session of Congress that was expected to reflect a weakened President and Democratic Party. I don’t purport to know how it happened. I’m hoping some of you will help me understand. Within a matter of weeks, significant legislation passed and was enacted into law. Perry Bacon of the Washington Post reported it this way:
On Wednesday [December 22], Obama signed into law the repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members, and the Senate approved a new nuclear treaty with Russia that the president had declared a top priority.

Those accomplishments come after Obama successfully negotiated a free-trade agreement with South Korea, reached a deal with Republicans that extended unemployment benefits and prevented a tax hike for millions of Americans and signed a bill that will make school lunches healthier.

This blitz of bill signings completes a dramatic first two years for the nation's first black president that included the enactment of arguably the most major liberal policies since the Johnson administration but also the Democrats' biggest loss of House seats in 72 years…

"With the lame duck, the 111th Congress may even surpass the 89th [of President Lyndon Johnson] in terms of accomplishments," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. 
The conspiracist within me wondered if the log jam broke because of Obama’s deal with the Republicans on the tax bill. While I was more reconciled to its passage than its defeat and wanted to support my President, I cheered for the two Democratic senators from Oregon who voted against it. Especially in congressional actions, overcoming the past with something better is rarely an unambiguous good.

There was no ambivalence in my endorsement of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I had been disappointed that Obama had not found a way to end this antiquated policy so far in his first two years, and I had given up hope that this Congress would end it. But it happened, and we didn’t have to wait for the courts to decide the matter as we did with racial segregation and laws banning interracial marriage. President Truman’s executive action in 1948  ended racial segregation in the military. As Truman said “Get over it!” to a protesting military, so I would say to those who object today. And to the United Methodist Church whose laws still maintain that homosexual acts are sinful and that gays are unworthy to be ordained ministers, I say “Stop the hypocrisy and change the law!”

Looking at the list of the lame duck accomplishments, Ezra Klein said that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham didn’t have it quite right when he said, "Harry Reid has eaten our lunch."
It was the Republicans. DADT repeal passed because Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Scott Brown voted with the Democrats. The tax deal went through because a host of Republicans voted with the Democrats. Same for START, the food-safety bill and the DoD authorization. If the bill helping 9/11 responders get medical benefits passes, that too will be because of Republican support.
And after it seemed that all they could say was “No!” why did these Republicans help this lame duck walk? After ruminating, Klein said this:
The answer, I think, is that there are plenty of Senate Republicans who aren't too comfortable with the class of conservatives who got elected in 2010. These legislators knew they had to stick with McConnell before the election, as you can't win back the majority by handing the president lots of legislative accomplishments. But now that the election was over, the bills that had piled up were, in many cases, good bills, and if they didn't pass now, it wasn't clear that they'd be able to pass later.

The incumbent -- and the outgoing -- Republicans know that the fact that Republicans will have more power in 2011 doesn't necessarily mean that they'll use that power to pass sensible legislation. So those of them who wanted to pass sensible legislation decided to get it all done now, even if that meant handing Reid and Obama a slew of apparent victories in the lame-duck session.
I wonder! In the meantime, while disappointed that the Dream act didn’t get passed, I think the chances for adding something better to the present is greater because of the of these victories. What do you think?

- Milo

Monday, December 27, 2010

Hope and Mushrooms

Re-starting this blog set aside on December 3, 2008 is a bit intimidating. I don’t regret the two year pause to write a memoir, but using a blog to be “heard” in public on issues of importance is dubious. In 2008, with millions of blogs flying around in cyber space, I likened blogging to putting a note in a bottle and casting it out into the sea.

In spite of the odds, sometimes people found my messages floating on the electronic tides and responded with insights that made me wonder why they weren’t writing my blog. Such is the miracle of communication possibilities via the Internet. But, two years later, even though I don’t text or twitter and am still a novice with Facebook, I know that the communications landscape has continued its seismic shifts, shaking the foundations of the print and electronic media, changing not only the means but perhaps also the substance of what is communicated.

So here I am once again shoving my little boat out onto the Cyber Sea. I’ll take my chances with messages in bottles (those tiny electronic packets passing through endless nodes) and wait for those on other shores to find and read. Then, when one responds through the maze, or passes it on to a friend, the miracle of dialogue begins.

And what are the messages I want to bottle? I plan to write about what Kentucky poet, farmer, and philosopher Wendell Berry said is the only way to escape the past; and that is “by adding something better to it.”

We will be looking at government and corporate policies and practices to find ways the present may be made better, but seeking not in those places alone. Wendell Berry was thinking local before “thinking local” was cool. Over thirty years ago, he wrote The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (New York: Avon Books, 1977), an incisive assessment of modern agriculture and its relationship to American culture--our health, economy, personal relationships, morals, and spiritual values.

At the time, I was working in New York City at the National Council of Churches coordinating member responses to the world food crisis. I was thinking big, and how only large scale initiatives on the national and international level had any hope of mitigating the crisis. Reading Berry undermined my easy assumptions about how social and economic changes take place. He was suspicious of “solutions” conceived in Washington, New York, or Brussels by the non-poor. He suggested that we look at what later would be called the micro-level. Begin implementing responsible agricultural and social practices where you are able (in your family, your household) in full confidence that others beyond your sight and knowledge are doing so as well. Sound practices grow like mushrooms, sprouting and spreading in ways you never would have expected.

At first read, I thought Berry’s image a cop-out from working for change at the macro level. I discovered he wasn’t talking about an “each one teach one” approach to social change. Far from it! He was making an observation about the spontaneous way change often occurs and reminding us that without taking action in our households and local communities, our words are just that, words! In this blog, we won’t despise either macro or micro efforts, but examine both for how they better the present.

I want this to be a blog of hope. The “hope” of which I speak has little to do with optimism that things will inevitably get better. Hope that requires so little of the holder seems not to be hope at all. We are all blind in some respects, and the fourth century the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa was no exception. But unlike most of us, Augustine’s mind was a treasure trove of incredible insights. One of those insights was about the nature of hope:

Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage: anger so that what must not be, may not be; and courage, so that what must be, will be.

Our nation has been engaged in two wars for almost ten years; our economic policies seem to favor the rich at the expense of everybody else, future generations, and the environment. In the face of the most serious environmental threat our planet has ever faced, we appear paralyzed; science itself often discredited because it is the bearer of the bad tidings and doesn’t fit with some of our religious beliefs. The list could go on.

I want this blog to be about people unwilling to accept the way things are and who possess the courage to work at adding something better to the present. There are many, and like mushrooms, you find them in strange places. Finding them is worth the effort because they are the ones who have hope!
- Milo

Friday, December 24, 2010

Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror

[During my two year pause in writing the blog, I wrote a memoir of my experiences in Taiwan in the late 60s and early 70s. The picture is from The Star in Hong Kong on March 5, 1971. What follows below is a description of the yet unpublished book.]

Fireproof Moth is a mystery worthy of fiction. That the memoir is true makes it hard to put down or to forget. When convinced that the secret police were going to arrange an “accident” to kill his friend, the missionary decided he had no choice but to help well known human rights leader Peng Ming-min escape from Taiwan. So successful was the getaway that when President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Chou En-lai met in Beijing two years later and wanted to know how Peng got out, neither of their vast intelligence systems could tell them. Even Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who presided over Taiwan’s Stalinist-style police state, went to his grave without knowing that a group of non-government novices managed to get Peng out undetected.

Milo Thornberry believed God called him to be a missionary to teach history and live the faith he professed. Taiwan wasn’t his choice, but it was where the Methodist Church sent him at the end of 1965. Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror is a 65,000-word account of how becoming friends with Peng led to a double life, one in which Milo taught church history at Presbyterian seminaries, and the other in which he and his wife secretly collaborated with Peng and two of his former students in a variety of human rights activities, all of which were illegal and some of which were considered capital crimes under martial law. The constant threat of discovery by Chiang’s secret police gave Milo his own taste of the White Terror. When police showed up at their door on March 3, 1971, Milo and his wife became the first missionaries arrested since the Nationalists took over the island in 1945. Although the Kuomintang leaked a panoply of charges to explain the arrest and deportation, Peng’s escape and the Thornberry’s other activities were not among them. Instead, officials in Taiwan reported them as terrorists. The line in Beijing was that they were CIA agents.

Although Thornberry did not suffer torture and imprisonment like Wei Ting-chao and Hsieh Tsung-min, nor Peng’s twenty-year exile from his homeland, Milo was blacklisted by the U.S. State Department and denied a passport for nineteen years. Not allowed to resume his vocation as a missionary outside the United States, he completed his doctorate at Boston University, trained missionaries, and served as a pastor in Alaska and Oregon. His role in Peng’s escape was not revealed until 2003 when Milo was invited back to the newly democratic Taiwan to be recognized for his human rights activities. Only in 2009 did he and Peng uncover the true reason for Milo’s arrest thirty-eight years earlier. As a personal story, Milo’s conflicts of conscience between ideals of justice, breaking the law, and being a guest in the country were not theoretical questions, but the daily cauldron in which he made his fateful decisions. As a political narrative, the author’s portrayal of life in the White Terror casts an eerie shadow on contemporary relations between the United States, China, and Taiwan.

- Milo