Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Science of Water and the Poetics of God

Humans have always been more comfortable with terra firma, which we can feel beneath our feet, than aqua, that substance, definitely not firma covering almost 71% of the surface of the earth. So pervasive is this aqua outside and inside of us - up to 60% of our bodies, 70% of our brains, and 90% of our lungs – from the beginnings of time it has been an object of awe and fear. 

“Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water…,” our response to that chilling line from the movie Jaws, has less to do, I suspect, with great white sharks than with lingering primeval fears about what lies beneath the surface of aqua. Little wonder that it has been at the center of so many religious rites. At the same time, its ordinariness in the same human eyes has resulted in abuse on a scale that gives new meaning to concept “endangered”.

“Imagine!” That’s the human function that the author most wants the reader of The Holiness of Water to exercise. Imagine the words “water,” “holiness,” and “baptism” as bubbles floating in the air of traditional theological, historical, and scientific discourse. And then imagine the bubbles bursting, with the new meanings exploding unfettered into human understanding.

That’s what Jim Campbell, my colleague in Alaska for many years, gives us in his new book. Never again will I use any of the three words without being reminded that they are vessels for cargoes far more precious than my mind ever conceived. This book is not a scientific treatise on water, but it could be. It is not an historical and theological exposition of a Christian sacrament, but it offers insights into Christian history that I suspect will leave readers asking, “Why didn’t I see that before?”

No, The Holiness of Water is the work of an artist, plumbing the depths of nature and human rite as only an artist, who is also a pastor, can. Through Jim’s eyes and his life with water, he gently peels away the layers of meaning convinced that the more we come to know about water the more we will be led into the mysteries of God. I think he succeeds.

Unlike any treatments of water or baptism I encountered as a theological educator or pastor, The Holiness of Water reminds me of my favorite movie, Babette’s Feast. This Danish film about the preparation of a French meal in an austere religious community can be appreciated by persons with vastly different interests and backgrounds because of its artistic excellence at multiple levels: music, preparation of food, the human condition, and cinematography. I imagine that the artistic excellence at multiple non-competing levels in Jim’s narrative will enable persons of religious and non-religious orientations to relish what they find.

Henri Nouwen once told two seminary students who had signed up for his course that they should schedule nothing following because they would need time immediately after to process what they heard in his class. Maybe the students were slow; maybe the teacher had an inflated ego; or maybe the teacher was right. While The Holiness of Water may be quickly read, I suggest that you don’t. After each chapter, take time to see yourself in the story. As if in a gallery or natural history museum standing before a work that compels your gaze, pause and allow your imagination free reign.

The book was released by Sunbury Press last week. It is available from Sunbury Press and from Amazon in paper. Expect it to be available from Barnes and Noble soon. Electronic versions (Kindle and Nook) should also be available.

I hope you'll get the book and see where your imagination takes you.

- Milo

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Crimes to Remember - The Rest of the Story

This all began with reflections on President Obama’s pronouncement after the assassination of Osama bin Laden that “justice has been done.” I said, and still believe, that finding bin Laden was a necessity, but in my mind justice will not be done until all of the unconstitutional measures employed in name of “War on Terror” are rescinded. Seeing the movie, The Conspirator, prompted a reflection, “Crimes to Remember in History,” wherein I recalled in sadness the judicial aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination, but how it brought to mind John Adams’ refusal to abandon the right to due process even for the British soldiers charged in “Boston Massacre.”

On March 5, 1770, Adams agreed to defend the British soldiers accused of murder in what came to be called the “Boston Massacre” because no one else would. He was denounced as unpatriotic and worse. And when he won the case, successfully proving in court that the British soldiers were not guilty, John Adams was vilified. His life was threatened. He lost half his law practice. Why had he taken the case in the first place? Because he believed that no one in a free country should be denied the right to counsel and a fair trial. John Adams had been tempted to compromise his ideals, but in his resistance he helped to insure that “due process” according to the law would be a part of the bedrock of this country’s new constitution.

Eventually, the people remembered Adams’ integrity and the principle of “due process” which he had been tempted to forsake for his personal safety and convenience. He would go on to persuade the Continental Congress to ask Thomas Jefferson to draft the “Declaration of Independence” and would himself become the second President of the country when George Washington retired.

In the weeks after 9/11, I told this story to my congregation because I feared that in our government’s desire to find those who were guilty of the bombings in New York and Washington that we might be tempted forget the ideals we hold most dear in this country. In the days and years that followed, the Patriot Act (what a travesty in the name!), rendition, Guantanamo Bay, not to mention the war in Iraq, all became words that describe how many of our ideals were sacrificed in the fight against terrorism. And it is why I cannot say that in the death of bin Laden “justice has been done.” Justice demands far more for its scales to be righted.

If Paul Harvey were telling this story (he probably wouldn’t because of his politics), he would doubtless call what happened next, “The Rest of the Story.”

Despite Adams’ great accomplishments, another test of his ideals came in the summer of 1798. Adams, then President and a candidate for a second term, was weary of being under constant attack by his political opponents, led by his Vice-President Thomas Jefferson, and fearing the real possibility of war with their old ally, France. The burden of the presidency has always been an impossibly heavy burden; it was then and it is now.

In that summer, in the midst of war fever and hysteria about a possible invasion by the French and worry about what French-speaking Americans would do in such an event, Congress passed into law extreme measures that Adams had not asked for nor encouraged, but which he signed into law. They were the “Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.” The acts nullified the constitutional guarantees of “due process” under the law and gave the President enormous powers to imprison or deport suspected saboteurs. It also gave the government unprecedented powers to suppress dissent in the press. Jefferson, and the other Republicans, said that the measures were Adam’s attempt to suppress the Republican Party. After the election when Adams was soundly defeated and Jefferson elected President, the measures were repealed.

Despite the fact that, as President, Adams had prevented a likely disastrous war with France and had also prevented a military takeover of the U.S. government from within, Adams’ presidency is still primarily remembered for the passage of the “Alien and Sedition Acts.” Adams’ biographer, David McCullough, acknowledges that the passage of these acts under Adams’ administration is “rightly judged by history as the most reprehensible acts of his presidency.” (David McCullough, John Adams, p. 504)

What happened to the man who so championed the rights of due process that he risked his life, his family’s life, and his livelihood to defend those British soldiers in 1770 and insure provision for due process in the U.S. Constitution, only to sign into law the “Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798”? Was he just weighed down by the impossible burden of the presidency preventing war and a military coup in the White House?

As President Obama has backtracked on his commitment to close Guantanamo Bay and allow military tribunals for “terrorists,” I would hope that the President might remember both of these stories of John Adams.

But, damn it; it is not President Obama who most needs to remember these stories. It is Congress who has refused to allow the closing of Guantanamo and who created such hysteria about trying terrorists in our nation’s courts and on our soil. Despite their rhetoric, not nearly enough of our lawmakers have confidence in the U.S. Constitution. The Tea Party doesn’t have confidence in the Constitution either, and judging by their acquiescence on these violations of the Constitution, neither does a sizable portion of the U.S. citizenry.

Maybe that is what John Adams faced in 1798 and he just got tired of fighting. What do you think? What do you intend to do in our time?

- Milo

Monday, May 9, 2011

Crimes to Remember in History

I have just come from seeing The Conspirator, a docudrama about the judicial aftermath of the assassination of President Lincoln by Confederate zealot John Wilkes Booth. Fear and anxiety grip the nation. Secretary of War Stanton jettisons judicial process in the belief that any sign of weakness (read “fairness”) in the trial of those accused of conspiring with Booth will incite other acts of “terrorism.” In the frenzy Mary Surratt was condemned to death despite having all her rights guaranteed in the Constitution disregarded. She was reluctantly defended by Frederick Aiken, a rookie lawyer and Union war hero, who came to see what terrible injustices were being done to innocent people.

The assassination of President Lincoln is a crime to remember, but so is the crime against Mary Surratt.

Similar crimes were almost committed over a hundred years earlier, and would have been, had it not been for another brave lawyer who believed in the Constitution. As I watched The Conspirator I couldn’t get this story out of my mind.

The year was 1769 and the place was Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.(1) Boston was full of red-coated British troops – sent the year before to keep order as another round of taxes was imposed by the English Parliament, this time on paper, tea, paint, and glass. The atmosphere in the city was volatile. Incidents of violence between the townspeople and the soldiers, the hated “lobsterbacks,” began to erupt.

Four American sailors were arrested and charged with killing a British naval officer who had boarded their ship with a gang to “kidnap” them into the British navy. The sailors resisted and the British officer was killed. John, like other American colonists, was outraged by the British policy – called “impressments” -- and eagerly agreed to defend the sailors. The sailors were acquitted and John became a hero to the people of Boston.

A year later on March 5, 1770, the streets of Boston were covered in a foot of snow. On the icy, cobbled square at Province House near the harbor, a lone British sentry stood guard. He was taunted by a small band of men and boys. Just after nine o’clock a church bell began to toll, the alarm for fire, and almost at once crowds poured into the streets, many brandishing sticks and clubs, not buckets. Eight British soldiers with loaded muskets and fixed bayonets soon reinforced the lone sentry. Shouts and curses were exchanged. Then the crowd began to pelt the despised redcoats with snowballs, chunks of ice, oyster shells, and stones. In the chaos, the soldiers suddenly opened fire, killing five of the colonists. Patriots Samuel Adams and Paul Revere portrayed the incident as the slaughter of innocents, an example of British tyranny. It came to be known as the “Boston Massacre.”

Now thirty-four years old, John was asked to defend the British soldiers and their captain. Hesitating no longer than it had taken him to agree to defend the American sailors a year before, he said “yes.” He said that no one in a free country should be denied the right to counsel and a fair trial. John knew that this would not be a popular decision, that it could ruin his reputation, his law practice and, because feelings were running so high in Boston, possibly endangering the lives of his wife Abigail and their children. The rumor spread that he had been bribed to take the case, when in fact eighteen guineas was the only payment he would ever receive. With the political climate as it was in Boston, John was scorned as few ever experience in their lifetimes.

There were actually two trials, one for the captain and one for the soldiers. In the first, John argued that there was no proof that the captain had given an order to fire, and the captain was found not guilty. The city was enraged.

The second trial began immediately afterward. In defense of the soldiers John argued that the tragedy was not brought on by the soldiers, but by the mob. And the mob, he wanted it understood, was the result of bad British policy of quartering troops in the city on the pretext of keeping the peace. One of the soldiers, he pointed out, had been knocked down and then hit again when he tried to get up. John argued that the soldiers should be acquitted because they acted only in self-defense. Without clear and compelling evidence, John argued, it was better that guilty persons escape unpunished than that one innocent person should be punished. This is the way he put it in his summation to the jury: “The reason is because it’s of more importance to community, that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished.”

The jury was out for two and a half hours. They came back with verdicts that acquitted six of the soldiers and found two guilty of manslaughter, the punishment for which was branding their thumbs. John was vilified in the press and lost over half of his practice. He soon regained the respect of the citizens of Boston and beyond. In fact, John was one of a few brave people who made possible the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the United States.

We are at the end of a decade of a “War on Terror” deemed by many to be such a threat that due process guarantees in the Constitution should be set aside. Do you believe in Adams’ summation to the jury? I believe that equivocation on this point betrays both the Constitution and our national ideals.

I’d be interested in know what you think.

- Milo

(1) This account is based on David McCullough’s, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001) pp. 65-68.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Crimes to Remember - Part One

“Justice has been done,” President Obama said late Sunday night, April 24, 2011 when he announced the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. That sounded better than “retribution has been exacted,” which I thought more accurate.

People flooded into the streets to celebrate the death of this villain who claimed to be the mastermind of the horrific events on September 11, 2001, a crime forever marking the people of the United States and beyond. Confronted with a death of such magnitude, I suspect many weren’t sure how to respond.

Joy is not what I experienced; maybe relief. I took comfort in what I heard a woman’s whose husband was lost in the inferno at the World Trade Center say: “I don’t experience joy at the death of anyone. My husband is still dead.” She didn’t say she wished that bin Laden was still alive, only that as someone who lived with death daily she didn’t feel “joy” at this news.

In the still outpouring of details about the assassination, which I confess to have read as they have emerged, and the speculation about what this death means in the “War on Terror”, which I have assiduously avoided, I found my attention turning to the past. In the case of bin Laden it wasn’t to sum up his contributions to the world but rather a reflection on the damage he did.

Apart from the death and destruction wrought that morning ten years ago, there have been other things that might be included in the obituary of Osama bin Laden. In its obituary, the New York Times reported that bin Laden hoped that if he were killed in an attack, the Muslim world would rise up and defeat the country responsible. But I discovered that Comley Beattie put into words some other things I felt should also be included:
Truth is we were defeated with a weapon of mass destruction called the Patriot Act—you know, after 9-11, when Congress passed it and G. Bush signed into law the sacrifice of our rights.

More than 6,000 US troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we've killed over a million Iraqi and Afghan civilians under the pretense of multiple pretenses. Trillions of dollars have been spent.

The assassination of bin Laden doesn't bring peace of mind or troops home. Nor does it end the suffering of those in war-ravaged countries.
I had another item for inclusion in the obituary. Osama bin Laden had a victory when his action provided justification for the Bush administration to approve torture as an official instrument of policy.

The euphemism of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, or Verschärfte Vernehmung, was a term coined in Germany in 1937 to describe torture that would leave no marks. It was designed to save the embarrassment pre-war Nazi officials were experiencing as their wounded torture victims ended up in court. It was torture that in 1948 Nuremburg specifically denounced and convicted Nazis as war criminals for using.

There has been a rush by some to claim that this torture produced intelligence that resulted in the location of bin Laden. That’s not what I heard former director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, say on NBC News following the assassination of bin Laden. He said
We had a multiple source -- a multiple series of sources -- that provided information with regards to the situation. Clearly some of it came from detainees and the interrogation of detainees but we also had information from other sources as well.
Even if such information was critical in locating bin Laden, does that mean the United States is justified in using the very “enhanced interrogation techniques” we condemned at Nuremburg?

As heinous as the attacks on 9/11 were and the unimaginable suffering they caused, Osama bin Laden may have himself rejoiced at the crimes he prompted us to commit in the “War on Terror.” He provoked us to act more like he always imagined us to be.

I do not mean this as a rebuke to our President. He is trying to clean up a mess not of his making. Unlike some friends on both the left and the right, there is no one I trust more to sort all of this out.

Al-Qaeda is doubtless still a threat; but if we think that many of the policies enacted to fight Al-Qaeda are not equally threats to us as well, we deceive only ourselves. Like the attack on 9/11, these are also crimes to remember, and until these policies have been rescinded, justice has not been done.

- Milo

Coming Soon: "Economic Crimes to Remember"

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Past and Present in Taiwan

In Fireproof Moth I wrote about events forty years ago, but even in the euphoria of my being welcomed back to Taiwan in 2003, the gaity was sobered by remembering not only the human cost of what had gone on years earlier but the possibility that days like that could again return. The seeds of democratization planted by Peng Ming-min, Hsieh Tsung-min, and Wei Ting-chao in 1964 and many others through the years began to bear fruit with the end of martial law in 1987, and finally the election of a non-KMT (Nationalist Party) President in 2000. Then, with the election of the KMT's Ma Ying-jeo in 2008, I couldn't get the overused but true words of novelist William Faulkner out of my head:
The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.
I do not subscribe to a cyclical view of history or theory of inevitability, and I doubt that Faulkner did either. I think he was acknowledging that the past is always alive in our present. Our experiences of deja vu remind us that hands from the past are always reaching into our present.

Readers may understand my sense of deja vu with certain recent events in Taiwan. The following was my OPED in the Taipei Times on April 29, 2011.

I was one of the signatories to the “Open letter to Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) KMT government” published in the Taipei Times (April 11, page 8), questioning his administration’s decision to investigate former senior Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials over 36,000 supposedly missing government documents.

Presidential Office spokesman Lo Chih-chiang (羅智強) denied in a letter received by academics this week that the investigation was politically motivated, even though it was announced on the eve of former premier Su Tseng-chang’s (蘇貞昌) registration for the DPP primary for next year’s presidential election.

I confess that Lo’s response to the letter from 34 academics, experts and writers gave me feelings of deja vu.

Deja vu is a French term for the experience of reliving something, or a compelling sense of familiarity with events in the past. I had several such feelings as I read the response.

Instead of speaking about the issues raised in the letter, Lo’s denial rested on his claim that “the Republic of China is a nation based on the rule of law.”

What is at issue is not that the Republic of China has laws, but how those laws are being used for political ends. The first feeling of deja vu took me back to statements of former Alabama governor George Wallace during the US civil rights movement when he tried to defend the practice of racial segregation by claiming that the state was “based on the rule of law,” as if that somehow justified its manipulation of the law to perpetuate segregation.

These were also the words government officials used in response to criticism of monumental human rights abuses during the White Terror era.

My second feeling of deja vu came when I read how the Presidential Office attempted to discredit the signatories of the letter, rather than engage them in serious conversation. I was taken back in time to the defenders of US racial segregation who criticized their critics by claiming that “the trouble is being caused by outside agitators.”

That seems to be the case now with the government’s response to the 34 signatories. I look over that list and I see the names of those who have been Taiwan’s friends for years, who are not ignorant of the country’s history and politics, who have lived for many years in Taiwan, who are Taiwanese and those who are deeply committed to democracy.

Late in life, Wallace said he was sorry for the way he had disregarded blacks and even sought forgiveness from some civil rights leaders.

In 2003, my first trip back to Taiwan since being deported in 1971 for what were termed illegal activities, I appeared on a panel discussing life in Taiwan in the time of the White Terror. After the discussion, a young Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) official came up to me and assured me that “we are not the same KMT we were when you lived in Taiwan.”

I replied: “I hope not.”

However, after the government’s response to the 34 signatories, I still have these feelings of deja vu.

Milo Thornberry is a former missionary professor and the author of a memoir about his days in Taiwan titled Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Which 2 of 3 Do You Choose?

Illustration: Christoph Niemann

This is about choices. Washington D.C. is ablaze with hysteria about the national debt. On Friday, I sat at table with nine others trying to make sense of the problem and the ideologies shaping the debate, if indeed the current brouhaha rises to the level of actual “debate”. We were frustrated by the complexity of an issue of such great importance to all of us. Saturday night, a friend sent me a link to an article in the current issue of The New Yorker by their Financial Page writer, James Surowiecki, titled “Bitter Pills: Who Is Responsible for Fixing Medicare?”

On Facebook my friend wrote that the article was “far and away the clearest summary of the issue I’ve read.” Clarity is what I need. If Surowiecki is right, the Administration and Congress face the hard choice of choosing only two of three things most voters want, which also means that if you and I have any political leverage and expect to try to influence the outcome we too must choose two of the three things most voters want.

Let’s look at what Surowiecki says are the three things most voters want. “The ideal system, for most voters,

a) Would guarantee all seniors reasonable health care,
b) Stop the debt from getting out of control, and
c) Keep paying health-care providers as before.

“The problem,” he continues, “is that you can only do two of those things at once. The debate between Ryan and Obama is a debate over which of the three we’re willing to give up.” Before I ask you to say which of the three you are willing to give up, let’s look at how Surowiecki concludes that we must make such a choice.

Despite Republican claims of vast overspending, the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s lowering its outlook on U.S. debt because of concerns about the long-term budget, and President Obama’s stating the need to cut two trillion dollars from government spending over the next ten years, Surowiecki says
Yet, strange as it may sound, the federal government does not have a spending problem per se. What it has is a health-care problem. The cost of most budget items typically rises at a reasonable rate, if at all, but the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax subsidy for employer-provided insurance has been rising much faster than everything else: in the past forty years, Medicare costs increased 8.3 per cent annually. If they’re not controlled, Medicare and Medicaid will eventually be by far our biggest expense. Preventing that is the key to getting our fiscal house in order.
Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican, has proposed a simple solution: give seniors less money. He would replace Medicare as we know it and the government would give vouchers to seniors to buy private insurance.
His plan saves money because the value of the vouchers would rise at a much slower rate than health-care costs themselves; as the years pass, the government’s contribution to seniors’ health-care spending would shrink. As a result, seniors would have to spend more and more of their income on private insurance and out-of-pocket expenses, or go without. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that Ryan’s plan would actually increase the amount of money Americans spend on health care, since private insurers aren’t as good at curbing costs as Medicare. But taxpayers would pay less.
The health-care bill that Congress passed last spring represents a different approach.
It trims more than four hundred billion dollars from Medicare spending, and contains a host of initiatives designed to make the health-care system more efficient and effective. In line with that, it creates a body called the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which determines how much Medicare will spend annually. The American health-care system is riddled with waste and unnecessary and ineffective procedures. Relative to every other industrialized nation, we spend more and our health outcomes are no better (and often worse). In American medicine, supply often creates its own demand, and paying doctors on a fee-for-service basis encourages more high-cost procedures. The I.P.A.B., in conjunction with other cost-cutting provisions in the bill, would look to fix the skewed incentives that lead to overtreatment, bargain for better prices, and insure that we’re spending our money more effectively. The Affordable Care Act is far from a perfect law, but the C.B.O. estimates that, if implemented as planned, it could cut the long-term deficit by more than a trillion dollars.
One might have thought, mused Surowiecki that this would have gotten “some love on love on the Hill,” but it didn’t. During the 2010 elections, Republicans used those very cost-cutting provisions as a club to bash Democrats for threatening to trim Medicare spending. And the strategy worked: Republicans won the senior vote by a twenty-one-point margin. Now, some Democrats are joining Republicans in trying to repeal the Independent Payment Advisory Board:
From Congress’s point of view, there are three problems with the I.P.A.B. First, it may take spending decisions out of Congress’s hands. Second, talk of restraining health-care costs sounds like rationing, which Americans hate. (That’s why, as the debate over the Affordable Care Act progressed, Obama said less and less about “bending the cost curve.”) Third, and most important, one person’s “waste” is another person’s “income”—the income of doctors, nurses, hospitals, drug companies, medical-technology makers.
Contrary to the focus on insurance companies in much of the debate on health care in the U.S., Surowiecki says
but, whatever their [the insurance companies] problems, they’re not the main driver of health-care inflation: providers are. Hospital stays, MRI exams, drugs, and doctor’s visits are simply more expensive here than they are elsewhere, and the fee-for-service structure insures that we use more of them, too. It’s really just math: most of our health-care dollars go, in one way or another, to health-care providers, so if we want to restrain the growth of health-care spending, less money will have to go to them.

This makes a lot of people, and not just politicians, uncomfortable: people, on the whole, understandably like and trust doctors and hospitals. They want to be able to choose their own doctors, and don’t want them to drop out of Medicare because the fees are too low. This is the fundamental dilemma: we’re unhappy about the rising cost of health care, but we’re also unhappy about what we would have to do to curb it. [My bold]

So, we are back to the question at the beginning. What is the provision of the “ideal system” you are prepared to live without? That, according to Surowiecki, is what the Administration, Congress, and the U.S. citizenry will have to decide.

Before you answer that question, ask yourself (and then share with the rest of us), is Surowieckie right about the choices we face? And is the fixing of Medicare really the core issue in dealing with our national debt?

My answer? Yes, I believe he is right about the choices we face. The provision I am prepared to live without is “c”, and I believe that the health care legislation passed by Congress with the Independent Payment Advisory Board is a fair way to lower the costs of health care. I also believe that many seniors couldn’t see beyond their fears in the last election. Those of us who are seniors, I believe, have to do everything we can to see that doesn’t happen again.

At our luncheon on Friday, Alice put it well: “Let’s fix the things in Medicare that need fixing. Don’t destroy it!” I believe that if we do that, we will also fix the biggest problem of our national debt.

What say you?

- Milo

Read more