09 March 2006

Blues and hope

Derek and Friends, from www.derekandfriends.orgJust in the nick of time, Derek Lamson (bottom right in picture) and his friends are giving a concert of their Jesus-centered blues and roots music at Lynwood Friends Church here in Portland, Oregon. It's happening Sunday, March 19, 7 p.m. Click on the picture to go to their site for some mp3 samples—and buy the CD. It's good.

Until this very morning, I thought I was going to have to miss it to be at a court date in Indiana. But that date has been put off yet again. Good thing—I need this musical transfusion!

Item 1: In the absence of the new ghostwriters I'm trying to recruit for the Bush team (see my entry from a week ago), Alberto Gonzales continues to spread the sanctimonious line that the USA never practices torture. Pete Blackwell sums it up:
The administration's plan to avoid charges of torture is truly worthy of Orwell (it brings to mind not only 1984 but the Soviet treachery outlined in Homage to Catalonia as well):
  • We don't torture people.
  • We get to define what "torture" means.
  • "Torture" is defined as "that which we do not do."
  • By definition, objectively, we don't engage in torture.
Feel better now?
West Hills Friends Church has approved the following minute:

As Christians and members of West Hills Friends Church (Quaker), we embrace the ancient teaching of Scripture, "And God said, Let us make the human being in our image, after our likeness."(Genesis 1:26) Our spiritual forefathers and mothers taught us about "that of God" in every person and of the "light of Christ within" that illumines our lives and directs our actions. Jesus Christ showed us this light in his earthly life and taught us the way of peace as children of God. His valuing of persons, both high and lowly and his call to us to live as children of the kingdom of light, cause us to speak out against recent, and perhaps ongoing torture practices by our country.

Along with many others, we are shocked, revolted and saddened by our government’s use of torture in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, despite constitutional and Supreme Court precedents that have historically denounced physical and psychological cruelty. We see these practices as characteristic, not of this nation, but of those repressive and totalitarian regimes that we have historically criticized, judged deficient, and often sanctioned. The Geneva Conventions, considered to be the standard of civilized conduct for nations who respect human dignity, have been denigrated, denied and ignored by leaders of our nation.

We believe that torture can never be justified as a means of control or extracting information from those deemed enemies. Torture dehumanizes its victims, obliterating the image of God in those who are tortured, and thus insulting the Creator of us all. Perpetrators, in their blindness to the humanity of those they torture, become inflictors of unbearable humiliation and pain. Thus torture, by its barbaric practices and disregard for the dignity of fellow human beings, steals the humanity of tortured and torturer alike.

We now call on our government leaders, including the executive branch, to acknowledge the wrong and inhumane treatment of prisoners during recent years and to uphold in both word and deed the McCain Amendment to the Budget Bill recently passed by the U. S. Senate. Further we ask that these words of William Penn (1683) be the norm for further actions by government and individuals alike: "A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil that good may come of it…Let us then try what Love may do."

In the meantime, I'm trying to figure out how British defense secretary John Reid can with a straight face ask the media not to undermine troop morale. According to the Guardian, he gave a "combative" speech in which he complained that the troops were operating in an "uneven playing field of scrutiny." Yes, they're under some scrutiny, while those in high places of power, the ones who put those troops in untenable situations, somehow aren't under that same scrutiny. Reminder: if you're concerned about your employees' morale, don't engage them in morale-destroying activities.

Item 2: New Supreme Court Justice Alito can't catch a break from his alert critics. I don't care whether he writes thank-you letters to James Dobson, but when Dobson read his brief note from Alito on the air, People for the American Way briefly went ballistic. Their press release charged that Alito's unimaginatively courteous note showed "an appalling lack of judgement." If they expend all this rhetorical ammunition ("obsequious and horribly inappropriate") on one little note, the on-air reading of which says a lot more about James Dobson than about Samuel Alito, what will be left if Alito issues an "appalling" opinion? Let's be fair: to say anything meaningful about this note, we have to know how many hundred other such notes Alito wrote.

I believe that the heretical enmeshment of evangelical Christianity and right-wing power politics is truly an important issue. Observers are right to worry that this heresy may influence Alito, especially given the record of the administration that nominated him. But trivial gotcha exercises strike me as mean and unworthy of this larger goal.

Item 3: Sexuality and two more examples of contemporary Western incompetence at dealing with it: The North Dakota law prohibiting abortion, and the British law concerning consent before sex.

I'm about as anti-abortion as a white male is allowed to be. For example, I'm even skeptical that rape is a good enough reason for an abortion: the child did not have a say in the matter. Yet I'm also skeptical about criminalizing abortion outside a true culture of life context—a seamless-garment understanding. I think it should be a lot easier and more secure, in terms of social arrangements, for a mother to bring a child into the world (for adoption, if necessary). And even severe inconvenience of a mother is not a good enough reason for abortion. The fact that men are often such miserable jerks in situations where abortions are tempting doesn't at all weaken the sanctity-of-life argument; that's a separate problem requiring its own solutions. Having said all that, a simple prohibition of abortion without all those other understandings in place seems like a cheap and mean victory for a force other than the humane, winsome evangelical Christianity I want to be identified with.

The current campaign in Britain (see this BBC page, for example; reactions here) to remind men to gain consent before sex is also disheartening. Not that I don't want men to be on notice that taking advantage of a situation clouded by alcohol is completely and criminally unacceptable. But both this law and the abortion debate remind me of a dimension of reality that I'd rather be in denial about: many people seem to have such a casual, detached, recreational view of sex that they've lost a sense of its earthy and awesome reality. Even for the affluent, sex isn't just a lifestyle matter. Lives are sparked into biological reality. Hearts are broken. Communities are affected. There seems to be no community-wide conversation about the sacred context within which we weigh decisions about having sex and creating children. Without that context, laws are blunt and brutal instruments, whether I theoretically agree with them or not.

from portal-credo.ruQuaker briefly arrested in Moscow: Viktor Vekselman, a member of the Moscow Meeting, was arrested during his one-man demonstration in front of the Danish Embassy in Moscow, according to a story from portal-credo.ru. Many thanks to Mikhail Roshchin for bringing this to my attention.

Viktor's "disturbance of the peace" at the embassy last Friday consisted of standing alone with a sign saying, "For prayerful dialogue among believers of various faiths." The arresting policeman was not dissuaded when Viktor explained that the law, as confirmed by Moscow's central administrative authorities, required neither advance notice nor permission for an individual picket. The policeman arrested him anyway. However, on Monday, the local judge returned the charge papers to the police, saying that the charge was inadequately prepared, and Vekselman was free to go. He made it clear that he is going to make a weekly practice of picketing for prayerful interfaith communion.

While in the jail, Vekselman met six members of the youth group Oborona ("Defense") who had been arrested for an unauthorized demonstration against the visit by the Hamas delegation from Palestine.

On Sunday, according to portal-credo.ru, Moscow Meeting adopted the following minute in connection with the caricatures of the prophet Mohammed: "We see that, in connection with the appearance of the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in various Western publications, an anti-western hysteria has broken out in many Islamic countries, the victims of which have been people who were completely innocent of any involvement. We stand for religious toleration and freedom of expression. The provocation of hatred and confrontation among believers is, we believe, inadmissible. We pray for peace in the hearts of believers and reconciliation among various religions and confessions." (My translation.)

Patrick and Christy Neifert, Friends workers in Russia from my yearly meeting, are participating in Barclay Press's "Daily Journal" series for two weeks starting last Monday. Go here for Patrick's first entry, then click on the calendar at the right for succeeding days' posts.


James Chang said...

Hi Johan,

Thanks for keeping Friends updated on current legal and political issues. The troubling truth is: that the Attorney General of the United States would openly proclaim that torture is an acceptable means of extracting confession was simply inconceivable even 15 years ago. It simply is inconceivable that men like Dick Thornburgh would argue for the legality of torture...

Regarding abortion, etc. I think many evangelical Christians are caught in between the utilitarian argument that "anti-abortion laws actually cause more harm" and deontological arguments that "abortion is per se wrong." (Many evangelical ethicists like Glen Stassen are caught in it) Your seamless-garment understanding seem to be a breakthrough from this impasse, since your understanding has distinguished perfectly the law of rights and the law of virtue, and the requisite different mechanisms in enforcing them. Now if by not enforcing a penal law against abortion we make room for better a better moral climate in which women and men came to the genuine moral understanding that abortion is wrong and should never have been done, perhaps we really should keep abortion legal...

In the Light of Christ,

Johan Maurer said...

My question: Can we Friends model a tender, positive, nonabusive conversation that includes these elements? (Namely, the law of rights AND the law of virtues? The joy and fun AND the hazards? Respect for "local truth" AND respect for biblical and corporate disciplines?)

Anonymous said...


Do you know about The Quaker Iniative to End Torture, which is having its inaugural conference in June of this year? For more information, please go to:

I am grateful for all those ready to undertake this work.

Johan Maurer said...

The information on the site strikes me as begging for a better title: "Liberal Quaker Initiative to End Torture." And why not? Evangelical Christians and our celebrity leaders have been quick to thump drums for Terry Schiavo, conventional marriages, unborn children, and whatever other priorities Karl Rove sets for us, but are strangely silent as the demons of deception kill and torture.

I wish the June conference success. Hopefully a nicely catered conference on the beautiful campus of Guilford College can do some community-building as well as intention-setting to kindle a true movement. Whether the conference will be capable of telling the truth about evil and its spiritual manifestations in us as well as the "powers that be" is another question. But a conference doesn't have to have every duck lined up in a row to be useful. Evangelicals mostly need to find that first duck.